Iterative, evolutionary and revolutionary innovations

In my last post I focused on different types of innovators.  In this post I want to share some thoughts on different types of innovation.  But, I’d like to start with a quick mention of the Wikipedia entry on innovation, which states (with some minor editing):

“Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas. Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself. Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different rather than doing the same thing better.”

All of those things — innovation, invention, improvement — tend to jumble together in my day-to-day conversations and thinking.  For example, I have a hard time saying something is simultaneously the creation of something better, but then also saying it’s not an improvement.  So, for the purpose of this post, I’m really not going to treat them any differently.

Now onto the heart of the actual discussion:  types of innovation.  There really are no set types, per se, and there are a lot of sources that discuss types of innovation (here and here for example).  But, I tend to think of innovations on a spectrum that looks like this:


Incremental innovation involves small adjustments to existing services or approaches, and I feel like this is what we see the most of in higher education.  A few examples:  in the career services field, where I currently work, this would be something like putting QR codes on the table tents at a career fair.  In admissions it might be using a new way to reserve spaces for campus visits.  These types of innovation, although small, still matter a lot.  So, please don’t interpret the spectrum as a substitute for bad-to-good or less-meaningful-to-more-meaningful.  Iterative innovations are vital.   But, on the downside, they typically do not bring about larger changes.  So, in instances where large-scale changes in not only style but substance is needed, you typically won’t get there through iteration.

Evolutionary innovation can seem like a large-scale change.  But, at its heart, the “new thing” is still strongly grounded in the “old thing.”   Again using the career fair example, this would be like hosting a “virtual career fair.”  It’s a new medium and environment, but is basically the same otherwise.  An academic advising office that begins to have digital signage to notify students where they are on the list of those to be seen (like Apple’s Genius Bar) is an evolutionary innovation.  These are a little more dramatic and noticeable than iterative innovations.   Evolutionary innovations have the potential to lead to larger-scale changes.  But, with hindsight, they tend to be an intermediary step along the way to something different.

Revolutionary innovation, as one might deduce, truly involves something different that leaves much of the old behind.   Continuing the career fair thread, whatever replaces fairs entirely (whenever that may occur) will be a revolutionary innovation.   When career services offices stopped doing “placement” and converted to “career education,” it was a revolutionary innovation.   Again, that’s not always to say these have more value, nor am I trying to imply that everyone is in a situation that demands or even needs to consider revolutionary innovation.   But, some of us may be.

Here is where I’d like to involve you in the conversation more purposefully.  How many truly revolutionary innovations can you think of in student affairs?  Some, no doubt, would have occurred around various civil rights movements.  Also, in what areas do you think there is a need for revolutionary innovation?  I’d love your thoughts.

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