The Differences Between Optimizing, Innovating, & Disrupting


Is your team really being innovative? We’re not trying to insult you. It’s just that “innovation” is too often used as a catchphrase for three completely different activities:

  • Innovation introduces new ideas and emerging technology into an existing category. This is what everyone thinks about when they talk about creating new things: they jump on the most cutting-edge technology or coolest trend and apply it to their brand. If you want to innovate, your company has to have a keenly developed sensing team—one that’s always exploring how new ideas and technology can be applied. 
  • Optimization adds incremental improvements to an existing product or service. This isn’t nearly as “sexy” as innovation, but it’s crucial for extending the life of a brand and generating revenue. To succeed at optimization, you have to be absolutely obsessed with your customer and service design—every step of the purchase process has to be that much better. 
  • Disruption creates new business models in order to reach new customer segments. Complacent competitors and unserved segments mean it’s time to find a new way of doing business. More than anything, this requires courage—a willingness to challenge the status quo, even if (and especially if) it threatens your company’s existing business model. 

So which should your team focus on? It depends on the market:

  • If you’ve identified an existing consumer need that’s just not being met by current options, the category is ripe for optimization. Be careful, as it can be hard to know when to stop supporting an existing product and try something else.
  • If, on the other hand, you’ve identified an entire new customer segment that’s being underserved, that’s an indication that you should be focused on disruption. This can take a long time to develop, though, so make sure you’re financially able to wait it out.
  • If you’re noticing a new technological development or cultural trend (or, if you’re just using the process of elimination), that’s the time for innovation. But don’t get caught up in the hype: be clear if you’re innovating as a stunt or as a scalable product.

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