What is Innovation? Part 2


One sure-fire way to take the scare out of innovation is to develop a more sophisticated view of it. Otherwise, it’s way too easy for people to hear the word or the request for greater innovative endeavor and actually perceive you to be actually saying, “You need to create the next ‘iPhone’ version of breakthrough for your industry. Ready. Set. GO!” No pressure, right? Let’s remove that all together.

For most of us mere mortals who might feel a shiver of inadequacy when we’re asked to innovate, it will really really really (really) help to know that there are multiple types or different kinds of innovation. And not all innovation involves extreme disruption to our current reality. In fact, that kind of innovation is the rarest of all. BUT… when you practice the other forms of innovation, you’ll find that you’re laying a foundation to go higher and farther in your innovational journey. So the more you master the more basic forms of innovation, the more confident you’ll become with the other forms.

Here’s a graphic depiction of what could be called “4D” Innovation—four different dimensions of innovative moves that bring different degrees of progress (in your method) and impact (in your market). Thinking through these four different zones of innovation will give you a more nuanced and sophisticated way of thinking about and approaching innovation. While I’ve applied it to a ministry context for my own purposes, the original framework is adapted from a synthesis of innovation research by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen and Jim Kalbach.

4 Zones of Innovation

The descriptors are fairly straightforward. But let’s briefly define the 4 dimensions or zones here:

Game-Changing Innovation

Game-Changing Innovation is revolutionary innovation and involves a radical target transformation, including dramatic advances in method and target market impact—creating a new product or service and a new target market all together. This is the rarest and most extreme form of innovation. The easiest way to understand this is to think about it from a tangible product innovation perspective. (We’ll discuss these four dimensions from non-profit, Christian ministry, and social innovation perspectives in later posts.)

So the following are examples of Game-Changing innovations that created radical transformation in our world: the printing press, the electric light, the steam engine, the automobile, antibiotics, the smart phone, and AI machine learning. These innovations brought about tectonic plate shifts in the realms of information distribution, increase of hours of productivity, transportation, effective treatment of common illnesses, and personal internet connectivity and access to information. When you realize that these are the types of things people think about when they hear the word innovation, can you see how most people totally freak out when we call for it?

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive Innovation is a phrase coined by Clayton Christensen in 1995. It’s more revolutionary (sudden/dramatic) than evolutionary (gradual/subtle). It’s an innovation of an existing product or service in a way that makes the newer version appeal to even more people—creating new impact in a new market and reshaping existing ones.

An example of this would be Crest’s Whitestrips, a cheaper alternative to an expensive dental procedure that now enables many more people to whiten their teeth more easily and inexpensively. Teeth-whitening already existed; but Crest’s new approach created a whole new market and impact. Minicomputers are another example of disruptive innovation—allowing individuals, not just companies, to enjoy the benefits of computers. Netflix disrupted the video rental industry with its internet video streaming, dramatically increasing the number of people who could access their product—more quickly and cheaply than with Blockbuster’s retail-based model. Typically, disruption comes from a new entrant that “disrupts” an incumbent’s existing market or model.

Breakthrough Innovation

Breakthrough Innovation involves huge advances in an already existing product or service that propels it to a whole new level of impact. It’s more evolutionary than revolutionary and is sometimes also called “Architectural” innovation. It refers to taking an existing product or technology and applying it to a totally different target market.

After NASA created a new type of foam for aircraft cushions (eventually called “memory foam”), it took on many other applications including mattresses, pillows, shoe insoles, etc. Taking an already existing product or technology and applying it to different markets is what creates breakthrough. Breakthrough and Disruptive innovation are probably the hardest two zones to distinguish from one another; but if you keep in mind that Breakthrough innovation is more evolutionary than revolutionary and Disruptive innovation is more revolutionary than evolutionary, that will help.

Incremental Innovation

Incremental Innovation is the most common form of innovation and involves upgrading existing products or services with slight tweaks that bring subtle improvements over time in ways that sustain the success of an organization’s core competencies.

Upgrades to software, additional features to an iPhone, adding blades in a Gillette razor, putting cherry flavoring in Coke, or tweaking a golf ball design to make it fly 5% farther are all examples of Incremental innovations. While Game-Changing innovation is purely revolutionary in nature, Incremental innovation is purely evolutionary in nature. But be careful not to think this makes Incremental innovation less powerful since a relentlessly disciplined approach to ever-improving some product or service can yield huge returns over long periods of time. And the very behavior of constantly seeking ways to enhance something is like innovational bench-pressing; it’s bound to increase the innovational muscle mass of your team or organization and push you into the other 3 dimensions or zones of innovation, leading to even more significant forms of progress and impact.

Lead your team to carefully consider the nuances of the different dimensions of innovation! Higher sophistication in your innovative thought will deepen effectiveness in your innovative action.

What do you think about these 4 categories or zones of innovation? Are they helpful to you? Can you think of specific examples within each dimension to further your understanding?

For those of you who find yourselves in a Christian ministry context, what are some examples of innovations in ministry services or “products” in recent history? What about early church history?

Which of the 4 dimensions of innovation is most needed in your realm right now? Why?


  1. Guqinz

    Thank you for another excellent post. Where else could anybody get that type of info in such a perfect way of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am on the look for such info.

    • Marcus Bieschke

      Hey, friend. So glad you found this post helpful. What did it clarify for you? How are you trying to apply what you learned in it to your context?

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    • Marcus Bieschke

      So glad you appreciated this, Refugia. What resonated the most? Anything you want to push on or add to? Let the sparks fly, friend.


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