radical innovation

Contributor(s): Mary K. Pratt

Radical innovation is an invention that destroys or supplants an existing business model.

Unlike architectural or incremental innovation, radical innovation blows up the existing system or process and replaces it with something entirely new. Some see radical innovation and disruptive innovation as interchangeable terms.

Some believe that radical innovation has clear, delineated parameters and point to academic and business leaders influential in this sphere, such as Clayton M. Christensen, as having provided those parameters.

Others, however, advocate for a more subjective determination of what constitutes radical innovation -- although they, too, generally agree that radical innovation wholly replaces an existing design, process or system to create something substantially new and unique.

Radical innovation falls on the farthest end of the innovation continuum. A modular innovation involves changing one module in a design, process or business model to generate significant improvements. An architectural improvement changes how those modules work together to bring significant improvements. Radical innovation changes both the components and how the components interact and puts them together in a new way to create a unique solution.

In business and technology terms, radical innovation happens when a new entry completely disrupts a business or industry. Many point to the rise of Netflix, first as a mail-order movie service and later as a provider of streaming video, as a radical innovation that put the retail-based movie rental model -- and industry giant Blockbuster -- out of business.

Others point to Amazon as a radical innovation, having entered the virtual space completely by leveraging emerging technologies to create an entirely new business model. Contrast that with traditional brick-and-mortar retailers that supplemented existing physical retail space with online sites, a move that’s in line with incremental innovation.

When successfully achieved, radical innovation typically results in a high level of reward. However, it also comes with a high degree of risk. Similarly, there's usually a high degree of resistance to it and a corresponding slow rate of adoption because of its disruptive nature.

As a result, many organizations tend to focus on incremental innovation that allows leaders to introduce changes over time, making adoption more likely and simultaneously lowering risks of failure.

Although radical innovation does indeed come with a high risk of failure, organizations and individuals can plan for radical innovation; it is often strategically sought, fostered and intentional.

This was last updated in December 2015

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Have you worked for companies that have attempted radical innovation? How did it work out for them?
We strive for it in my industry. Sometimes we get it spectacularly right.

In the film business where every movie wants to be something entirely new, every film is exactly like anything that's come before. That's a standard pitch for us - "my film is just like The Martian except it's set at the North Pole just like that film about Shackleton and...."

But in the process of making old stores new again, the industry has created hand-held cameras, cameras so tiny they are literally finger-held, digital film and sound recorders, linear editing, YouTube, Netflix' full season downloads, high-speed imagery, 3D, Dolby sound, DVRs and their game-changing 30-second skip, GoPros, reality TV (In the late 80s I produced one of the first fully-scripted "reality" shows, "The Street"), budgeting and scheduling software (Michael Crichton won an Academy Award for creating the first), LED lights. And, of course, the Kardashians....