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Improvement vs. Breakthrough

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Innovations come in all shapes and sizes. Some are simply improvements—while others are game-changers. These are the breakthrough innovations. So what makes the difference?

If you're a video person, I lay it all out in the video below. If reading is more your thing, skip the video and hop straight to the transcript below!



Hey there, Bill Stainton here with Turning Creativity into Money™, and today I want to talk about the difference between improvement and breakthrough.


Now, they're both valid. They're both forms of innovation. We need them both.

But what is it that separates the breakthrough from mere improvement?

Well, we know this because we've talked about this. Innovation is really all about connecting dots. You collect a bunch of dots and you make connections. That's where the innovation comes from: seeing two things, and then connecting them in a way that nobody has before.

Like, like in 1440, when Gutenberg connected a wine processor with a movable type and invented the iPhone. So that's what—it, it wasn't the iPhone, he didn't—it doesn't matter, doesn't matter. But that's, that's what innovation is all about.

Here's the challenge with that though. What do you notice about these dots?

They're all the same, aren't they? They're all alike. They're all three-quarter inch navy blue dots.

The problem is, if that's all you have—three- quarter inch navy blue dots—meaning if you only ever listen to the same kinds of podcasts, if you only ever read the same kinds of books and articles, if you only hang out with the same kinds of people, if you only have the same kinds of conversations— if all your dots are three-quarter inch navy blue, then most of your connections are gonna be three-quarter inch navy blue.

It's not exactly breakthrough is it?

And here's the bigger problem: your three-quarter inch navy blue dots are probably the same as your competitors'. So if you're listening to the same things your competitor is listening to, if you're talking to the same people your competitors are talking to, if you're reading the same things your competitor is talking to, then your ideas are going to be pretty much the same as the competitor.

That's not going to put you in the breakthrough category. That's going to lead to improvement, and here's what that looks like. What that looks like is you think, "Okay, our, our competitor has—just like us—our competitor has three-quarter inch navy blue dots. So, here's what we're gonna do. Okay, stay with me on this, don't tell anybody. We're gonna make a dot that's not three-quarters inch. We're going to make a dot that's seven eighths of an inch!"

Okay, so you win—for the short term.

But you tell that strategy to any five-year-old and she's gonna see right through it instantly, isn't she? You tell her that strategy and what's she gonna say? She's going to say, "Well, won't they just make an even bigger dot?" And then you're like, "Oh. I hadn't thought about that."

So that's not going to lead to breakthrough. That's going to lead to improvement. And improvement's good, we need improvement.

But if you want breakthrough, what do you have to do?

You have to start collecting different colored dots.

Start reading the articles and the books that your competitor is not going to be reading, start listening to the podcasts they're not going to be listening to, start talking to people having the conversations they're not going to have, and that's probably going to mean you're going outside of your industry. Which is good! Because that means you're going to get the input, and the opinions, and the ideas, and the perspectives of a different world and that's where the breakthrough comes from.

See, improvement's fine we, need improvement. But think about, let's think about the iPhone—which as we all know was invented by Gutenberg in 1440. Well, before the iPhone, there was improvement. Cell phones got better and better and better—incrementally.

First there was the three-quarter inch dot. Then there was a seven eighths inch dot. Then there was the—whatever comes after that; math I no good at, so, whatever. And then all of a sudden comes the iPhone and—breakthrough territory.

Different colored dots.

So again, improvement's fine—don't stop improving. But if you want a breakthrough, start collecting different colored dots. That's where the breakthrough is going to come from.

I'm Bill Stainton. I'll see you next time when I help you Turn Creativity into Money™.
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About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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