The “S” Curves of radical and incremental innovation

The “S” curves of radical and incremental innovation-StratoServe

Following a recent LinkedIn piece Sharpen the Saw, cut the Tree or look for non-Trees?, here is some more detail on the “S” curves of innovation. The “S Curve” innovation thinking is attributed to Richard Foster (1986) and made famous by Clayton Christensen in the book “Innovator’s Dilemma,” where he discusses how each successive computer hard drive industry got wiped out.

Think of each “S” curve as a technology platform. Movement up an “S” curve is incremental innovation while stepping down on a lower new “S” curve now, can lead to radical innovation, as the new “S” curve surpasses your existing “S” curve.The music industry, following some of the timeline of audio formats, is a great example.

You had workers who specialized on manufacturing cassette tapes, there were specialized suppliers and of course the Sony Walkman that made music cassettes so special. Cassettes came in 60 minutes and then 90 minute formats. Avid listeners (the final consumers) tried getting the 90 minute cassette that must have involved a lot of incremental innovation by suppliers and personnel in the plastic music cassette industry. You can visualize six-sigma and total quality programs at cassette factories, that reduced waste and defects in the product.

Suddenly you had music on CD’s that improved quality a whole lot and “Sony Discman” became popular as the cassette industry started dying, just as vinyl records had died before that. The CD industry had its own players and supply chain.

Next off course you have the MP3 player, iPod and literally thousands of songs on your device and then the iTunes store on the cloud. The MP3 players and cloud also require a new set of employee skills and a differently skilled supply base.

If you think about each industry, it ignored the march of technology and refused to get started on the next technology “S” curve from the current technology “S” curve. This reluctance was because at the early stages, each new “S” curve looked unattractive from the existing “S” curve.

You see that the dominant players in each technology type became extinct just because they thought that the upcoming technology was too much behind- and will never catch up. By the time the new technology ( second and third curves) became really comparable in performance and cost – the incumbents of older “S” curves were too far behind.

The takeaway for all types of organizations is to invest time and energy (more than merely money) at successive “S” curves that seem less attractive today but have the potential to vastly surpass what you offer your market today. About StratoServe.

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