Evolutionary vs. Revolutionary Innovation


Here’s a theory: the more distinctions we can make around various kinds of innovation, the more discerning we can be around which kind we should best engage right now. With that…

There’s a huge difference between EVOLUTIONARY innovation and REVOLUTIONARY innovation. As a leader, it’s critical to clarify what you’re asking your team to do when you call for innovation—and distinguishing between these will help. Otherwise, they may feel overwhelmed, thinking you’re asking for the next “iPhone” in a particular area.

Evolutionary innovation falls within the Incremental zone of innovation. Evolutionary innovation, like it sounds, involves gradual functional tweaks, smaller changes, modest improvements to existing processes or smaller scale things. To slightly twist Jim Collins’ Great By Choice language, evolutionary innovations are more like “bullets” (low cost, low risk, high learnings). The more you work at evolutionary innovation, the stronger your overall innovative muscle set will become, setting you up to work on revolutionary innovation moves when the time is right. Mastering evolutionary innovation builds competence and confidence.

An example of evolutionary innovation in a ministry context would be the creative implementation of lights and haze in a worship service to help create an environment where even the air in the room can be textured with lighting effects and colors to deepen the sense of artistic beauty and anticipation. While worship services have existed for millennia, the subtle modification using these new elements could add real value to worshipers. Such a move is only a tweak (although obviously a more significant shift for some contexts); but it’s a tweak with the potential to enhance the worship experience.

In contrast to evolutionary innovation is revolutionary innovation.

Revolutionary innovation falls within the Breakthrough, Disruptive, and especially Game-Changing zones of innovation. From Collin’s perspective, this would be more of a the “cannonball” approach (although not before firing and then calibrating bullets). These kinds of moves usually involve major focused initiatives around tackling huge challenges or hard problems—like Lockheed’s skunkworks or NASA’s Apollo moonshot program—where a designated team is given the freedom of time, space, and resources to discover a revolutionary, fundamental breakthrough around some enormously stretching project. Revolutionary innovation brings whole new value to a whole new target, market, or group of people. Revolutionary innovation is much more difficult, will have much more impact if successful, and will be much more rewarding than evolutionary innovation. And it may or may not be much more costly depending on the context or challenge.

An example of a revolutionary innovation from the marketplace context would be Google’s current attempt at driverless cars. If this new technology can be mastered, there would certainly be numerous benefits for humans not to have to perform the tasks of driving from one place to another. The greatest categorical benefit would likely be the gift of additional time in one’s day (some estimate that this could give back at least 1 hour to the typical commuter’s day). Now, obviously, Google has its own opportunistic capitalistic motivations for this innovation (i.e., more time for consumers to surf and shop online). But let’s apply the rise of driverless cars to the ministry realm. How can the Church creatively anticipate this revolutionary innovation in a way that could help individuals and families better relationally connect or invest in their spiritual growth for 1+ hour a day? The potential tools the Church could create to fill this new potential opening in each person’s day could truly be revolutionary.

Do you see the profound differences between EVOLUTIONARY and REVOLUTIONARY innovation? The next time you turn your team loose on a tough innovational challenge, declare which one they’re chasing! Doing so will remove unnecessary pressure, right-size expectations, clarify intended outcome, encourage failing forward, and amplify small wins all along the way.


  1. When it comes to vacations, are you a beach person or a mountain person? How does this impact the way you prepare for your trip? See any parallels to evolutionary and revolutionary innovation?
  2. Which is more fun for you—evolutionary or revolutionary innovation? Why?
  3. In this season, should your team be investing more of their time in evolutionary or revolutionary innovation? Why?
  4. How might clarifying these 2 kinds of innovation with your team give them helpful handles in your efforts? Would doing so relieve pressure or fear?
  5. Can you share other specific examples of evolutionary or revolutionary innovation from your industry or area?


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