Innovation vs. Iteration: Which Path Do You Take?

By Bill Zoelle, Chief Creative Officer

Published: June 10, 2014

When it comes to innovation, two things come to mind: change and disruption. Companies must adapt to disruption, or they will themselves be disrupted — possibly even destroyed. In short, to innovate you must adapt, and adapt quickly.


But when companies think “major innovation,” it’s often coupled with thoughts of a large investment — in time, resources and money. What most business leaders don’t know, or consider, is the fact that innovation doesn’t have to occur all at once, in one fell swoop. Innovation can occur over time with an iterative approach and still result in just as much success.

MYTH: You need to innovate frequently.

FACT: Innovation is cyclical.

In some industries, customers expect new innovations constantly, and the businesses that deliver are the ones that see success. However for most businesses, carefully timing these innovations — rather than churning them out at quickly as possible — is more important. Consider your business needs when considering action on a new idea. Is now a good time for the company?

Then, when an idea takes hold, make sure to devote enough time to see it through before jumping on to the next idea. “When your last innovation is proven and you’ve started to scale, you want to focus most of your people and energy on grabbing that opportunity,” says CEO to CEO‘s Robert Sher. “If you’re doubling every year, you want to devote 90 percent of your efforts to reaping that opportunity. When you’re a couple of years into rocket-ship growth, but competitors have shown up … that’s when you want to add to your innovation percentage.”

Broader industry trends and developments (new regulations or the emergence of new technologies) also need to be taken into account when determining whether it’s time to innovate. A good approach to innovation is not all at once, it is iterative and continuous.

MYTH: There’s no such thing as too many ideas.

FACT: There is if you don’t know what to do with them.

According to the post on, “coming up with ideas isn’t nearly as hard as determining which ones are any good and figuring out what to do with them. Small companies can be crushed under the weight of too many ideas.”

When determining whether or not to move forward with new ideas, start by confirming that they solve a business problem, either internally or solving a problem for your customers. Then, “the business case for pursuing an innovation should include an indication of how to measure its impact.”

A company cannot do everything with every idea that comes along, even if they are all good. Choose your strategy and execute accordingly based on those ideas that have the greatest potential impact balanced against your resources, time and money allocations.

MYTH: It’s best to be first.

FACT: It’s better to be a smart follower.

Innovation is often thought of as what is first to market. This is a great strategy in some cases. However, research shows there are benefits to arriving late to the party.

More often than not, we see pioneers of an idea or product blown away by companies that are second and third in line. This is because in most situations, companies that directly follow an innovation in the market have the opportunity to make improvements, adjustments and tweaks that the first company overlooked, now that it’s out there for customer feedback.

MYTH: Innovation is expensive.

FACT: Spending has little impact on results.

There is actually no correlation between a company’s spending on innovation and how innovative it is ranked by others. Furthermore, there is no relationship between innovation dollars and financial performance. In Booz’s annual Global Innovation 1000 study from 2012, the top 10 innovation spenders actually underperformed their industry peers in market capitalization and revenue growth.

MYTH: Innovation equals disruption.

FACT: Small steps are better.

If innovation is the lifeblood of growth and success, change and positive disruption act as a necessary roadmap for taking a business above and beyond — in sales, in culture, in market value and impact.

But, as leaders, the question always seems to remain: How do we encourage innovation (especially as everything is shifting to digital) while maintaining efficiency, high production rates and sales that meet the bottom line?

It takes a special type of executive, a serving leader, to realize the opportunity in those statements rather than negativity and fear. Those who do are likely well on their way to taking their company to the next level and leading their industry (if they are not already). They are likely one of a few early adopters of lean principles to fuel interactive innovation.

Things don’t always go as planned. Small steps and the willingness to adjust on the fly result in greater results overtime.


The Takeaway

Innovation is not scary. It is not time consuming. It is not costly. It is not overwhelming. At least, it doesn’t have to be. It does, however, need a presence in your company if you strive to dominate your industry.

In the same vein — just like innovation does not have to be costly, constant or take courage — bigger is not always better. When most business leaders think “innovation,” they think it needs to require a major upheaval to the traditional way of doing things. Yet, by taking small steps, staying smart, and taking a cyclical or iterative approach, smaller innovations can account for greater success. For example, small niche approaches can prove more impactful than one monolithic approach, especially today as we operate with heightened focus on specific audience needs and experiences.

How are you staying innovative?

Connect with us to learn more about how innovation and iteration go hand-in-hand when it comes to interactive business.