Fusion Blog

Managing Breakthrough Innovations

It’s no surprise that there are many different ways to look at innovation.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Vijay Govindarajan and Mark Sebell discussed different approaches to structuring innovation as well as the management strategies—top-down or bottom-up—that best support those approaches.  According to Govindarajan and Sebell, while bottom-up management works well for incremental innovations, a top-down management strategy is necessary for breakthrough innovations.

Breakthrough Innovations

Unlike incremental innovations, which allow companies to operate as normal while innovating, breakthrough innovations can radically change the business.

Based on Govindarajan’s and Sebell’s discussion, breakthrough innovations have two things in common:

  1. In the Beginning, Breakthrough Ideas Have No Benchmarks or Familiar Metrics
    According to Govindarajan and Sebell, familiar metrics can kill a breakthrough innovation. If a new idea is truly “outside-the-box”, there is nothing to measure it against.
  2. Higher Breakthrough Goals Require Higher Level Buy-in
    When it comes to the pursuit of breakthroughs, “the higher the goal, the higher the role.” In other words, the bigger the change an organization is trying to make, the higher the level of executive buy-in needed.  In order to have a breakthrough, the organization’s executive leadership must be willing to support the process by making some of the critical strategic decisions and providing people, money and time.  Their leadership is also needed to support the process when the organization begins to resist change. As Govindarajan and Sebell explain, a top-down approach is needed because management “can’t wait until everything is ‘ready.’ They must interact with their work teams frequently throughout all of innovation’s phases, from the beginning.”

In some cases, breakthrough innovation isn’t the best process for an organization. Both incremental and breakthrough innovation provide benefits depending on the project and company seeking to make the change.

SOUND OFF: How does your organization approach innovation? How does management strategy influence your process?

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