Contrasting Evolutionary Innovation vs. Revolutionary Innovation

by Sean Ross

2 min read

Innovations inevitably fall into one of two paths. Some innovations build on pre-existing ideas or processes in a linear fashion; think of how cars might receive better engines or superior tire technology over time. These are the evolutionary innovations. Others completely overhaul an existing system or introduce something entirely new. This is revolutionary innovation. The television, automobile, and internet are examples.

The Practical Differences Between Evolutionary and Revolutionary Innovation

The concept of “revolution” is very distinct from “evolution.” The revolutionist is more radical, and innovations are more discontinuous or nonlinear. By comparison, the evolutionist is prepared to think of continuous improvements inside a linear framework.If you make evolutionary change, you probably do so based on an existing infrastructure, most likely from the feedback produced by prior iterations of whatever you decide to improve. Revolutionary thinkers may take customer feedback into consideration, but ultimately they aim to deliver results that consumers have not yet considered.Revolutionary innovators tend to grab most of the headlines. Individuals such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Henry Ford, and Nikola Tesla have captured the imagination of consumers and entrepreneurs everywhere. Even so, you can make an argument that the gradual and necessary innovations on top of these new ideas are just as important.To make an analogy, picture two people standing halfway up a hill. The evolutionary thinker ponders about which way is best to reach the top of the existing hill. The revolutionary thinker imagines how to scale a yet-undiscovered taller hill.

Which Is Right for Your Business, and How Can You Tell?

Suppose you want your business to reach new heights; which type of innovation should you pursue? Smaller organizations, or at least organizations with smaller brain trusts, tend to be more suited for revolutionary change. It can be challenging to get a large group of people to agree on an idea that has never been tried or adopted successfully before. This is why many stable corporations naturally embody the evolutionary approach.Risk is another major factor. Evolutionary innovators go with known models of success; in other words, what they improve upon already has a track record. This established foundation creates a higher degree of certainty and predictability. This means the evolutionary approach may prove less risky for your company. Of course, more risk may lead to more reward.For example, suppose your company produces bicycles. Your customers love the bicycles, but every now and then, you receive complaints about a particular limitation of your existing bike model. With this feedback and an evolutionary mindset, you can still innovate without leaving the existing product framework by adding or modifying features to address the limitation.Finally, consider the urgency with which you need to make improvements. If your balance sheet is upside down and it’s clear that your business needs dynamic change right away, you may be left looking at revolutionary improvements, whether on the cost side or the product offering side.The world needs both evolutionary and revolutionary innovators. In business, technology, and the sciences, innovation opens the door to a new, better reality and higher standards of living. If you are keen on being a product innovator or having an innovative business, maybe the right step for you is to decide whether you can more easily improve on linear processes or nonlinear inventions.

References & Resources

Related Articles

What’s Changed in the New QuickBooks

The new QuickBooks Online bookkeeping software has gone through quite a few changes. As…

Read more

Checklist Before Leaving Your Job to Become Your Own Boss

So you’re thinking of quitting your job to become your own boss. In other…

Read more

How to Start a Consulting Business

If you’ve worked in a specific industry or field for any length of…

Read more