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Embracing Both Disruptive and Incremental Innovations: A Dual Approach to Transformation

Innovation is not about solo genius, it's about collective genius." ~ Linda Hill

What comes to mind when you think about innovation? Oftentimes, when I hear discussions about innovation, they’re centered around dynamic tech start-ups, angel investors, larger-than-life unicorn-type entrepreneurs, and Silicon Valley. Yet, innovation is so much more and is not limited to hi-tech start-ups. Innovation is all around us.

How do non-profits, foundations, faith communities, and academic institutions strategically embrace and leverage innovation to address complex social issues perplexing us?

During my career through many twists and turns, I’ve come to understand innovation is not a one-size-fits-all or either-or approach; it’s a this-and-that approach. Disruptive innovation and incremental innovation are both instrumental in solving the challenges we seek to address every day as leaders.

There are times when we will need disruptive innovation and there are times when we will need incremental innovation to be a part of our strategy. Disruptive innovation often challenges the status quo of established systems with ground-breaking ideas. Disruptive innovation introduces radical changes that can redefine the mission or impact of an organization. However, these are high-stakes, higher-risk ventures and may not always succeed. On the other hand, incremental innovation focuses on making small, regular improvements to existing programs, services, or processes. Incremental innovation, while less glamorous, ensures steady, reliable improvement and can strengthen the organization's core competencies over time. While the former carries a risk-reward paradigm, the latter offers consistent growth. Both types of innovation are vital for organizational growth and success.

I remember the first time I read Muhammad Yunus's ideas on microfinancing and how it was disrupting traditional banking by providing collateral-free loans to those who were economically impoverished. Yet, as microfinance institutions grew, they have incrementally innovated, redefining lending methods and expanding services to increase efficiency and reduce risk. This blend of disruptive and incremental innovation has allowed microfinance to reach hundreds of millions globally, stimulate economic activity, and fight poverty. This is one innovation model that shows us as leaders how to integrate disruptive and incremental innovation practices. Here are 3 lessons to consider:

Appreciate the value of both disruptive and incremental innovations. Neither approach is inherently superior; they serve different purposes and times. With disruptive innovation, be prepared to fail fast. With incremental innovation don't underestimate the power of small, consistent changes. An organization’s ability to innovate, whether through disruptive or incremental methods, will determine its sustained success.

Balance is Key. Establish a diversified innovation strategy that embraces bold and disruptive ideas and innovations along with regular incremental improvements that occur over time.

Understand the Risk. All innovation involves risk. Every decision we make involves some degree of risk. Even doing nothing has risks involved. It’s important to understand what your risk tolerance and your risk threshold is. It’s not an all-or-nothing scenario. Determine how much risk you’re willing to take and then make a decision to go.

By embracing both disruptive and incremental innovations, you empower your organization to ride the waves of change and remain resilient in the face of adversity. As leaders, let's harness the collective genius of our teams to foster both incremental and disruptive innovations and steer our organizations toward lasting success.


  1. Innovation Audit: Assess your current projects and classify them as either disruptive or incremental innovations. Do you see a balance? Discuss this in your next team meeting.

  2. Future Innovation Brainstorm: Divide your team into two groups. One group will brainstorm disruptive innovations, the other incremental improvements. Afterward, share the ideas and discuss their potential impact and feasibility.


  1. How is your organization currently balancing disruptive and incremental innovation?

  2. What could be the consequences if your organization focused solely on one type of innovation?


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