The Necessary “Destroying” Power of Breakthrough Innovations


The hardest thing about radical or “breakthrough” innovation is the fact that for it to be successful it needs to destroy your current basis of competition.

The new and improved iPhone will build on Apple’s existing resources and capabilities.  The next “breakthrough” iPhone will make most or all of Apple’s current technologies obsolete. By necessity. How hard do you think it is to develop this type of innovation? Very Hard…

But, how hard is it to develop a breakthrough innovation when you are building on the proceeds of the current business operation?

Pretty much impossible.

Two former DARPA leaders (Regina E. Dugan and Kaigham J. Gabriel) describe in a recent article how the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency produced its long standing reputation of breakthrough innovations. Some of the key elements are not really remarkable (like ambitious goals, and project teams). However, DARPA going after well-defined use-inspired basic research (Pasteur’s Quadrant) rather than pure applied research (Edison’s Quadrant) is both remarkable and inspiring.

In the private sector it is quite rare to go after Pasteur’s Quadrant because – as mentioned above – discoveries will upset the current basis of competition. The people responsible for identifying and selecting projects are typically the very people who’s reputation is build on what is successful today. Dugan and Gabriel also mention that the best minds from industry and academia are joined together in diverse teams for limited periods of time.

Are you working on resource-enhancing or resource-destroying innovation? The latter needs a very different approach.



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