Change isn’t Change

We, especially us consultants, preface presentations, blogs, and books with dire predictions about change in the world. What we fail to recognize at times is that change isn’t change, that there are different types of change and we need to have different tools—different levels of innovation—to address each. Three types that come to mind (there are surely other useful classifications) are incremental, differentiating, and disruptive.

Much of the industry discourse on change, and the innovation to respond to it, reminds me of a story told by the head of a teacher’s organization in Utah years ago. The person sitting beside her on a flight asked, “What’s the one thing we need to do to fix education?” To which she replied, “Get rid of all the people who think there is one thing that will fix education.” The parallel here is that how we approach change should be multi-dimensional and contextual. Whatever answers we come up with have to fit a particular context, within a certain period of time until that context changes. There isn’t one answer.

Incremental change includes small new items added to an existing product, practice, or process. They are the small “ah ha’s” that improve products. Teams innovate in this way all the time as they listen to customers and think up new features.

Differentiating changes involve a significant product, practice or process enhancement that creates a clear differentiation from the competition and that keeps us ahead of the competition for some short-to-medium timeframe. Innovating to respond to this type of change is more difficult as it creates differentiation within a market, but doesn’t significantly change a market.

Finally, the toughest change to respond to is disruptive change (identified by Clayton Christensen in his book The Innovator’s Delimma)—innovating to create an entirely new market, or change the market economics substantially. Disruptive changes are those that cause companies to fail if they don’t respond appropriately–and that response has proven to be particularly tricky to carry off for many. Most disruptive changes have only been classified that way considerably after the fact. However, these disruptive changes were manifested over a period of years (think the demise of mini-computers), but companies just couldn’t fathom the disruption even as it was happening to them.

Each type of change requires innovative responses, and each also requires a different level of innovation. Obviously it gets much harder as we move from incremental to differentiating to disruptive. As you design an innovation program for your organization, try to think about the different types of changes and ask which innovation practices fit best with each one.