Sometimes a cosmetic change can be the innovation that makes a product catch fire.
My favorite example of “incremental innovation” belongs to Dilbert—the cartoon, not the character. Even before the Internet was a gleam in Jeff Bezos’s eye, Scott Adams—Dilbert’s creator—got his syndicate to agree to attach his e-mail address to the strip.
The reason, Adams has explained, was to see what kind of reader feedback—if any—e-mail accessibility might generate. In fact, he still gets much of his best Dilbert material from reader e-mail. “Yes, they send me ideas,” Adams smirked in a Washington Post online discussion. “But the lazy %#$*s refuse to draw the comic too, so I have to do that part.”
Indeed. But the simple act of tagging a comic strip with an e-mail address proved brilliantly innovative. Getting your fans to subsidize your creativity—for free!—is an enviably efficient business model. What Dilbert’s dad did might be called—with apologies to innovation guru Clay Christensen—a “disruptive incremental innovation.”
While technically less innovative than the shifts from, say, piston to jet engines or vacuum tubes to transistors, disruptive incremental innovations have profound effects on business. It’s not about simply extending a brand; it’s about surprisingly cheap, surprisingly easy-to-implement ideas that transform how value is created or perceived. The ideas underlying the successful incremental disruptor almost always seem blindingly obvious in retrospect. Any competitor could have done it.