Is there such a thing as radical innovation?

Recently, I came across a working paper by two very big names in design/innovation research – Donald A. Norman and Roberto Verganti. The paper was very interesting, not the least since the hill-climbing paradigm of innovation presented therein is almost exactly what I and Lotta Hassi wrote about nearly three years ago. In addition to this certified streak of pure genius, Norman’s and Verganti’s piece argues that

  • human-centered design is fundamentally incremental and has failed to produce any radical change
  • innovations happen in two dimensions, in technology and in meanings
  • design-driven research can lead to radical innovation in meanings

All of which is great, but during the last year or so, I’ve come to question the whole idea of neatly separating novelty into incremental and radical innovations. My problem, which I ran into while researching the evolution of technology, is this: I cannot, in all honesty, find anything particularly “radical” from the innovations I’ve studied.

Innovations are generally defined as “radical” if they are novel and have a major impact, one way or another. A general yet seldom expressed assumption seems to be that a radical innovation (that is, one which has a significant impact) must somehow be a radical departure from existing practice, i.e. it must also be novel and/or unique. (Yes, there is something of a tautology going on here.)

As an example, Dahlin and Behrens (2005; excellent paper, by the way – all innovation scholars should take note) suggest a measure of radicalness for patents: how many patent citations the patent in question has. The logic is that radical inventions (note, not yet innovations) are so different from “prior art” that they do not have antecedents in the field.

But when we think about innovation process, how do these radically-different-from-prior-art inventions actually come about? Many people seem to believe that in order to find radical inventions, one must “think outside the box” and throw out all the “outdated assumptions” about how the world works. Some, myself included, have even made a tidy profit from advising companies in these matters.

There is some truth to these claims. It is indeed often helpful not to take the assumptions for granted and to think outside the box. But when one looks at the history of actual radical innovations, one doesn’t see much of creativity exercises, wild experimentation, or black turtlenecks (well, except at that one company). Radical innovations simply don’t seem to happen by thinking outside the box, by stimulating creativity, or – for that matter – by hiring members of the “creative class” either.

Instead, most radical innovations seem to result from steady, methodical, even boring work of staid, solid and pragmatic tinkerers. There is experimentation aplenty, to be sure, but it is very much planned and very much non-random. A significant characteristic is that experiments tend to be very small increments to state-of-the-art; simple adjustments may be tested and tweaked and tested all over again, for years in some cases.

As an example, let’s take what is arguably the most radical innovation of the 20th Century (if not all the time): the aeroplane. By the late 1890s, many people around the world had the means and the interest to build the first heavier-than-air flying machine. In general, these people fell into two broad types: those who were really thinking outside the box, and the Wright brothers. (Yes, this is a bit unfair generalization.)

Most of their competitors did just what several innovation gurus seem to implicitly recommend: they thought out more or less wild ideas, built the prototypes, and tested them. Unfortunately, by testing entire flying machines, they were playing a double or nothing game: if the basic idea behind their contraption was unsound, they had just lost a considerable amount of time and money.

The Wright brothers took a different tack. They started to methodically extend the prior art in a series of carefully controlled experiments. Instead of building whole aeroplanes, they tested particular components and their configurations. Bit by bit, they had a better understanding of just what combination of components would make a viable airplane. Only when they had high confidence of actually making the airplane work, they built one.

It worked from the start.

Every time something similar happens, an outside observer might be startled and believe the inventor made a huge conceptual leap, attributable perhaps to the singular, non-replicable genius of the inventor in question. This is understandable, but wrong. In real life, there are few if any great conceptual leaps, when seen from the inside. But there are many examples of small, methodical – incremental – steps leading to a “radical” outcome. We just tend to assume a conceptual leap, because those steps are rarely visible to outsiders. Indeed, sometimes even the inventor may be unaware of the steps that contributed to the invention.

I have trouble believing great inventions can even happen in any other way. Human brains have a lot of trouble trying to keep track of more than a few complex ideas and their combinations. Since radical innovations almost by definition require a significant juggling of complex ideas, making conceptual leaps without any stepping stones on the way seems a bit unrealistic.

So, what I believe is this: all innovations, whether incremental or radical, are fundamentally the same. What we call “incremental” is just a label we affix to those innovations that do not seem to be that consequential to us, the general (or scholarly) public. But many of these incremental improvements pave way, one way or another, to radical innovations.

Those what we call “radical” innovations may simply be a way of labelling an example of so-called self-organizing criticality. When we have a lot of incremental improvement going on, it’s almost inevitable that some improvements will turn out to be far more significant than the others. An avalanche – a cascade – of effects ensues. But when carefully considered, the triggering improvement need not be any different in any real sense from those improvements that failed to make the waves, so to speak.

There is some evidence that a 1/f or lognormal distribution, a fingerprint of self-organizing criticality (SOC), is visible in patent data. For example, Silverberg and Verspagen (2005), discussing the available evidence, conclude that patent citation statistics are extremely skewed, in a 1/f manner: very few patents are cited extremely often, while most are cited hardly at all. They also adapt a computer model that is known to exhibit SOC behavior and generate data that matches the patent data fairly well.

So, the claims that Norman and Verganti make in the paper I started this essay with are not necessarily wrong. But the implication – that incremental improvement and radical innovation require completely different approaches – is, in my opinion, potentially misleading. In particular, the hill-climbing metaphor, originally borrowed from evolutionary biology, oversimplifies things a little bit. Instead of hills, the landscape might resemble more a series of interconnected ridgelines. This “genetic drift” across more or less selection-neutral areas of the landscape is now thought to explain how new features and species actually evolve. In technological terms, the selection-neutral features might be small changes that do not really have an effect on the cost or user experience, but cumulatively may take the product far from its origins. (There is also another matter with the hill-climbing paradigm and its use as a metaphor: it assumes the landscape to be climbed will be stationary. This is not usually the case.)

What I and a colleague from the Netherlands are currently working on relates to these problems. We’re building a computer model of innovation that hopefully sheds a bit of light into how radical can emerge from the incremental. A preliminary paper detailing the problem and the proposed model will be presented at Technoport 2012 conference in Norway, and submissions of more detailed version are in for a couple of other conferences as well. I’ve also been doing some work on more selection-neutral models, but that’s farther off.

But what practical implications can I offer in the meantime? As far as money-making schemes i.e. companies are concerned, I have this to offer: if there is a choice between an “ideas guy” and an “execution guy,” pick the latter. There is a saying about how everyone has an idea, but without relentless, tenacious, stubborn execution, most ideas remain just that. And in my experience, it’s the execution that’s the hard part.

In general, I might suggest amending that popular wisdom, “the best way to have a good idea is to have many ideas.” In my opinion, the best way to have a good idea is to have many experiments. Of which this essay is one, so feel free to comment :).


Dahlin, K. B., D. M. Behrens. 2005. When is an invention really radical? Defining and measuring technological radicalness. Research Policy 34(5) p.717-737.

Silverberg, G., B. Verspagen. 2005. A percolation model of innovation in complex technology spaces. Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control 29(1-2) p.225-244. Available at: .

About J. M. Korhonen

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1 Response to Is there such a thing as radical innovation?

  1. Pingback: “How Radical is a Radical Innovation?” Kasmire, Korhonen and Nikolic (2012) | The unpublished notebooks of J. M. Korhonen

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