A theory of evolution

Does the best innovation have to be revolutionary, or will evolution deliver better returns over time?

I recently rediscovered a quote attributed to French novelist Andre Gide – we don’t discover new lands while still maintaining sight of familiar shores. The quote itself invokes great visuals, but is also a metaphor for business innovation. The shore would be a traditional business model providing shelter during the storms, and we can predict the outcome of the path. The idea would be that we only get truly innovative when we lose sight of the shore, breaking away from the tried and trusted and exploring beyond the horizon. If you’re not continuously exploring new lands, should you still be called an innovator.

But does the best innovation come at the expense of the old ways of doing things, or is it best to be an adaption of something which has come before?

Revolution first, evolution always.

Through the development of new devices and software, companies such as Apple and Google constantly push the boundaries to release something that is bigger, better or faster than before. It can be argued that neither have revolutionised the market, rather evolving existing products – sometimes not that successfully. However, this argument tends to ignore what Apple gave the world with iTunes and the first iPod – an ecosystem which allowed device and music to seamlessly connect. Google didn’t take long to catch up and now both companies are evolving existing products and services, but it was the revolution from Apple which led to the boom in portable listening devices and ultimately the smart phone we know today 

New technology, old ideas.

The idea of evolutionary innovation isn’t new either – the motor industry in the early 1900’s went through a similar idea. The interesting thing, it wasn’t Ford that led the way – they almost suffered as a result. In adapting the mass production line for the manufacture of automobiles, Ford revolutionised car production and would dominate the US car industry for nearly 20 years as he was able to market and sell the Model T at a significantly lower price than his competition. The problem is that Ford never evolved the Model T, and by 1927 their market share had significantly eroded as competitors adopted the production line approach while also evolving their product offering annually. Ford failed to adapt to competitive evolution from the likes of GM and as a result the company went from dominant to almost bust in the space of 6 years.

There’s gold in them hills – did we have to travel far to find it? 

Revolutionary innovation will give you a competitive advantage for a short period, but it won’t last for long and eventually you are going to need to evolve if you want to stay relevant and competitive. Equally, you can’t be successful if you try to make everything a revolution – new land only comes along once in a while, but sometimes the riches are closer to home. After all, a river will wash gold down from the mountains, but it won’t push it far out to sea – you might find a new land rich with gold, but your competitors won’t be far behind. 

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