Sustaining Innovation Examples, Definition, and Characteristics

21 min read

Sustaining innovation is a strategic and incremental improvement process that organizations employ to maintain their competitive edge. Various types of innovation, such as product, service, process, and technological innovations, contribute to the continual refinement of existing offerings. Cultivating an innovation culture within an organization is pivotal, fostering an environment that encourages creative thinking, collaboration, and adaptability.

An effective innovation strategy guides the organization in aligning its goals with market trends and customer needs improving its existing products, services, or processes to maintain or enhance its competitive advantage in the business innovation process for sustainable innovation.

Establishing and nurturing sustaining innovation demands a steadfast commitment from leadership, a supportive organizational structure, and a willingness to invest in employee development. At Digital Leadership, we offer innovation consulting services specifically tailored to guide organizations through the intricate process of cultivating innovation culture, with a keen focus on sustaining innovation. As an initial step, our innovation blueprint service critically evaluates existing innovation practices and seamlessly integrates them into the overarching business plan. This serves as the cornerstone for businesses to select customized services that align with their unique needs and innovation objectives, placing sustaining innovation at the forefront of their strategic initiatives.

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What is Innovation?

Innovation is the driving force behind progress a systematic process that turns inventive ideas into transformative solutions. Rooted in creativity, it powers improvements in products, services, and entire business models. This dynamic journey, from conception to realization, is solution-oriented, addressing challenges and unmet needs. The innovation process, spanning prototyping to implementation, is intrinsically tied to value creation enhancing efficiency, user experiences, and societal impact. There are various types of innovation, such as product, service, process, and technological innovation. Sustaining innovation, in particular, involves refining existing elements rather than introducing entirely new paradigms like disruptive innovation.

The Innovation Approach Model stands as a cornerstone in the realm of sustaining innovation, offering organizations a strategic framework to navigate the iterative process of continuous improvement. In the context of sustaining innovation, where the goal is to enhance existing products, processes, and services, having a structured approach is paramount, The Innovation Approach Model provides a systematic process that aligns innovation efforts with overall business goals ensuring that incremental changes contribute meaningfully to the organization’s long-term success.

Innovation Process - Process Approach
The Unite Innovation Approach
Designed by: Digital Leadership AG

What is Sustaining Innovation?

Sustaining innovation is a type of innovation with an incremental improvement strategy employed by organizations to uphold their competitive edge. It involves enhancing the features and performance of existing products, processes, and services.

It’s a strategic approach adopted by organizations to continually reinforce their competitive advantage in the market. This method focuses on making incremental improvements to existing products, processes, and services. By honing and refining these elements, businesses can not only stay ahead of the competition but also meet the evolving needs and expectations of their customers. Sustaining innovation is a proactive response to market dynamics, ensuring that organizations remain adaptable and resilient in the face of changing industry landscapes. It requires a keen understanding of customer preferences, technological advancements, and industry trends, enabling companies to stay relevant and provide ongoing value to their stakeholders.

Sustaining innovation examples further illustrate the practical application of this approach. For instance, companies in the healthcare sector continually embrace sustaining innovation to improve patient care, treatment methodologies, and operational efficiency. The integration of Electronic Health Records (EHRs) streamlines information management, exemplifying how sustained improvements enhance healthcare services. In the realm of technology, sustaining innovation is evident in iterative improvements to smartphone features, such as enhanced camera capabilities, faster processors, and extended battery life.

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Why is Sustaining Innovation Important in Business?

In the dynamic landscape of business, sustaining innovation plays a pivotal role in maintaining market relevance and achieving long-term success. Implementing sustaining innovation strategies allows businesses to adapt to evolving customer needs, technological advancements, and market trends. The significance of sustaining innovation in the business realm:

  1. Adaptation to Customer Needs: It enables businesses to stay attuned to the changing preferences and requirements of their customers. By continuously enhancing existing products and services based on customer feedback, companies can foster loyalty and satisfaction.
  2. Technological Advancements: In an era of rapid technological evolution, businesses must leverage sustaining innovation to incorporate the latest advancements into their offerings. This ensures that products and processes remain efficient, competitive, and aligned with industry standards.
  3. Market Trends and Competition: It allows businesses to keep pace with market trends and stay ahead of competitors. Regularly upgrading products and services helps maintain or improve market share, preventing obsolescence in the face of dynamic industry landscapes.
  4. Operational Efficiency: Incremental improvements in internal processes contribute to operational efficiency. It can streamline workflows, reduce costs, and enhance productivity, providing a competitive edge in the business environment.
  5. Customer Retention and Acquisition: Businesses that consistently innovate sustainably are more likely to retain existing customers and attract new ones. The perception of a company as forward-thinking and responsive to customer needs can be a powerful driver for customer acquisition.
  6. Risk Mitigation: Sustaining innovation acts as a risk mitigation strategy by allowing businesses to gradually evolve and adapt. This approach contrasts with the potential disruptions caused by the sudden introduction of entirely new technologies or business models, as seen in disruptive innovations.
  7. Long-Term Viability: The ability to adapt and evolve over time is crucial for long-term business viability. It fosters a culture of continuous improvement, positioning organizations to navigate challenges, capitalize on opportunities, and remain resilient in the face of uncertainties.

The UNITE Business Model Canvas is a vital tool for businesses pursuing innovation strategy. With a customer-centric focus, the canvas helps organizations understand and address changing customer needs through sustaining innovations. It enables strategic decision-making by visually representing the impact of innovation on resource allocation, partnerships, and revenue. Emphasizing ongoing enhancements, the canvas serves as a visual roadmap for seamlessly integrating sustaining innovation into overarching business strategies.

Business Model Canvas Template
The UNITE Business Model Canvas
Designed by: Digital Leadership AG – Building on the work of Alexander Osterwalder

Sustaining Innovation Examples

Sustaining innovation is a dynamic force across industries, shaping the trajectory of progress through continuous improvements and adaptations to changing demands. Let’s delve deeper into specific innovation examples that illuminate the multifaceted nature of sustaining innovation:

Sustaining Innovation in Healthcare Examples

The healthcare sector is at the forefront of embracing sustaining innovation to elevate patient care and operational efficiency. Electronic Health Records (EHRs) exemplify this, streamlining the management of patient information, enhancing collaboration among healthcare professionals, and ultimately improving overall healthcare delivery. Continuous upgrades in medical imaging technologies and diagnostic tools also signify sustained efforts to advance healthcare capabilities.

Sustaining Technology Examples

Technological evolution is intricately tied to sustaining innovation, evident in iterative improvements that enhance user experiences and device capabilities. In the realm of smartphones, sustained innovations include advancements in camera technologies, faster processors, extended battery life, and improved user interfaces. These ongoing enhancements respond to consumer expectations and contribute to the competitive edge of technology companies.

Examples of Sustaining Innovation of Different Industries

  • Automotive Industry: Sustaining innovation in automotive manufacturing focuses on consistent improvements in fuel efficiency, safety features, and in-car technologies. This includes the integration of advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) and the development of electric vehicle technology.
  • Consumer Electronics: Sustaining innovation in consumer electronics is evident in the continual evolution of products like laptops, tablets, and smartwatches. Manufacturers consistently introduce new features, improved designs, and enhanced functionalities to meet the evolving demands of tech-savvy consumers.
  • Food and Beverage: The food industry showcases sustaining innovation through the introduction of healthier product variations. Reduced-sugar beverages, gluten-free options, and plant-based alternatives reflect a commitment to addressing changing consumer preferences and dietary trends.
  • Retail: The retail sector adopts sustaining innovation through the implementation of advanced supply chain management systems. Additionally, personalized shopping experiences, facilitated by data-driven insights and technology, contribute to the sector’s ongoing transformation.
  • Financial Services: In the realm of financial services, online banking platforms continuously undergo enhancements. These innovations focus on bolstering security measures, optimizing user interfaces for seamless interactions, and improving transaction speed to meet the evolving expectations of digitally empowered consumers.

The integration of the “Jobs-to-be-Done” framework with sustaining innovation allows businesses to align their incremental improvements with the specific needs and problems that customers aim to address, creating a more meaningful and customer-focused innovation strategy.

Jobs to Be Done Job Map
The UNITE Jobs to be Done Universal Map
Designed by: Digital Leadership AG – Source: Lance A. Bettencourt and Anthony W. Ulwick.

Sustaining Innovation vs Disruptive Innovation

Understanding the distinctions between disruptive innovation and sustaining innovation is crucial, but more importantly, recognizing that there’s a time and place for both is key. Rather than being mutually exclusive, these two forms of innovation can complement each other effectively.

Disruptive Innovation

Coined by Clayton Christensen, disruptive innovation involves reinventing technology and business models, or creating entirely new concepts. This innovation type generates novel products, markets, and values, intending to disrupt existing norms. Examples of disruptive innovation pioneers include Waze, Airbnb, Uber, Netflix, and Doordash. This innovation goes beyond improving existing products; it transforms or introduces products and services in unexpected ways. Achieving disruptive innovation involves uncovering new customer categories, lowering costs, and enhancing quality. It explores uncharted territories, identifying areas not fully explored before.

Sustaining Innovation

Sustaining innovation focuses on improving existing products and processes within established markets. It doesn’t create new markets but instead enhances current ones with improved value. This innovation occurs incrementally, often in response to customer feedback, market demand, or technological advancements. Examples include the smartphone market, where manufacturers regularly release updated products to meet consumer demand and integrate new technology. Maintaining open channels for feedback enables continuous improvement, providing greater value to customers and the market.

Navigating the Innovator’s Dilemma

The “innovator’s dilemma” surfaces when a company must choose between improving existing market positions (sustaining innovation) or venturing into new markets with innovative technologies and business models (disruptive innovation).

However, it’s increasingly recognized that it doesn’t have to be an either-or scenario. To achieve cutting-edge innovation and long-term growth, both disruptive and sustaining innovations should be part of the overarching strategy, combining revolution and evolution. This approach acknowledges that there’s a time and place for both, and their integration can yield significant benefits. Apple serves as an example, leveraging disruptive innovation for new products and services while consistently improving existing ones.

Identifying Your Needs

Organizations should intentionally consider their needs regarding disruptive and sustaining innovation. Established companies often excel in sustaining innovation due to their resources and existing audience, allowing for incremental changes. Agile companies, particularly startups, may find their strength in disruptive innovation, challenging larger corporations in new marketplaces.

Guidelines for Success

Christensen provides four rules to avoid forcing disruptive innovation to mimic sustaining innovation:

  1. Assign disruptive technologies to organizations whose customers need them.
  2. Establish a small, separate organization excited by small gains.
  3. Plan for failure, considering initial efforts as learning opportunities.
  4. Don’t rely on breakthroughs; find the market for the current attributes of the technology.

For large organizations aiming for disruptive innovation, a separate, autonomous approach may be beneficial to avoid hindrances. Small organizations focusing on sustaining innovation can leverage their existing customer base for valuable feedback and data.

Maintain a balance between Disruptive Innovation and Sustaining Innovation

Maintaining a balance between disruptive innovation and sustaining innovation is crucial for long-term success. Focusing solely on sustaining innovation might lead to being replaced by disruptive innovation sooner or later. On the other hand, putting all attention on disruptive innovation could lead to declining revenue and profit, increasing the risk profile. Moderation is essential, and innovation training can provide insights into effective strategies.

In conclusion, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to innovation. Both disruptive and sustaining innovation approaches have their benefits, and neglecting innovation altogether can have severe consequences. Sustaining innovation offers incremental growth, while disruptive innovation has the potential to create new values and markets. It’s about utilizing the right strategies at the right time to increase the chances of success. If your organization is facing innovation challenges, custom workshops, like those offered by Voltage Control, can transform the way your organization works and enhance its innovation capabilities.

Sustaining Innovation vs Incremental Innovation

Sustaining innovation involves significant, groundbreaking enhancements to maintain or strengthen a company’s competitive position by responding to changing customer preferences and market trends. Incremental innovation, in contrast, focuses on gradual, continuous improvements to existing elements, addressing specific pain points or feedback. Both are crucial for a balanced innovation strategy, with sustaining innovation aiming for breakthroughs and incremental innovation ensuring ongoing refinement, collectively fostering a culture of innovation for long-term success.

CriteriaSustaining InnovationIncremental Innovation
Degree of ChangeIncrementalSmall, Gradual Changes
Impact on Market DynamicsMaintains Status QuoModerate Enhancements
Risk and UncertaintyLowLow to Moderate
TimeframeShort-Term FocusShort to Medium-Term

Sustaining Innovation vs Radical Innovation

Sustaining innovation involves incremental improvements within the current market, aiming to maintain a competitive edge. In contrast, radical innovation introduces transformative changes that challenge norms and can create new markets. The key difference lies in the magnitude of change, with sustaining innovation focusing on gradual enhancements and radical innovation embracing bold initiatives for industry reshaping. Balancing both is crucial for organizations navigating evolving markets and technologies.

CriteriaSustaining InnovationRadical Innovation
Degree of ChangeIncrementalRadical, Revolutionary
Impact on Market DynamicsMaintains Status QuoDisrupts Status Quo
Risk and UncertaintyLowHigh
TimeframeShort-Term FocusLong-Term Vision

What Are the Characteristics of Sustaining Innovation?

Sustaining innovation exhibits several key characteristics that distinguish it from other innovation types:

  1. Incremental Improvement: It focuses on incremental improvements to existing products, services, or processes. It builds on the current status quo rather than introducing radical changes.
  2. Market Relevance: The primary goal of sustaining innovation is to maintain or enhance a company’s market position. It aims to strengthen the competitive advantage by responding to customer needs and preferences.
  3. Customer Feedback Integration: It is often driven by customer feedback. Companies actively seek input from users to identify areas for improvement and tailor their offerings accordingly.
  4. Risk Mitigation: Unlike disruptive innovations, which can introduce uncertainties and risks, sustaining innovation is viewed as a risk mitigation strategy. It allows organizations to adapt gradually, minimizing the potential negative impacts on existing operations.
  5. Utilization of Existing Technologies: It typically leverages existing technologies rather than introducing entirely new ones. It optimizes and refines the use of current tools and methodologies.
  6. Long-Term Focus: It is aligned with long-term business strategies. It involves ongoing efforts to stay ahead of the competition, adapt to market changes, and ensure sustained success.
  7. Strategic Planning: Organizations implementing sustaining innovation engage in strategic planning. They assess the competitive landscape, market trends, and technological advancements to inform their incremental improvement strategies.
  8. Resource Efficiency: It is often resource-efficient, as it builds on existing resources and knowledge within the organization. This makes it a practical and feasible approach for continuous improvement.
  9. Cross-Functional Collaboration: Successful sustaining innovation requires collaboration across different functional areas within an organization. Teams from product development, marketing, and customer support, for example, work together to implement and communicate improvements.

Examination of Sustaining Innovation in Various Industries

Sustaining innovation permeates diverse industries, influencing the introduction of new products, services, distribution channels, and support and production technologies.

New Products and Services

Sustaining innovation drives the introduction of upgraded or refined products and services, meeting evolving customer expectations. Companies invest in research and development to enhance features, quality, and functionality.

New Distribution Channels

In response to changing consumer behaviours, sustaining innovation in distribution channels has become crucial. Businesses explore and adopt new channels, such as e-commerce platforms, to reach wider audiences and improve accessibility.

New Support and Production Technologies

Embracing cutting-edge technologies is a hallmark of sustaining innovation. Companies leverage advancements in automation, artificial intelligence, and data analytics to enhance production processes, reduce costs, and improve overall efficiency.

Geographical Expansions

Sustaining innovation extends beyond product and process enhancements to geographical expansions. Businesses explore new markets and territories, adapting strategies to local preferences and regulations.

Frequently Asked Questions

1- What is the Difference Between Sustaining Technology and Disruptive Technology?

Sustaining technology and disruptive technology represent different approaches to innovation.

  • Sustaining Technology:
    • Definition: Sustaining technology involves incremental improvements to existing products or services.
    • Characteristics: It aims to enhance performance, add features, or meet evolving customer preferences without radically altering the established market dynamics.
    • Example: Regular updates to smartphone models with improved camera features and processing speed represent sustaining technology.
  • Disruptive Technology:
    • Definition: Disruptive technology introduces a groundbreaking product or service that disrupts existing markets.
    • Characteristics: It often starts in niche markets and gradually gains traction, eventually reshaping the entire industry landscape.
    • Example: The advent of smartphones disrupted the traditional mobile phone market, rendering flip phones obsolete.

2- What is the Difference Between an Innovation and a Disruptive Innovation?

Innovation spans a spectrum, with disruptive innovation representing a distinct category.

  • Innovation:
    • Definition: Innovation refers to the creation or introduction of something new, which can include products, services, processes, or ideas.
    • Characteristics: It encompasses a broad range, from incremental improvements to revolutionary breakthroughs.
    • Example: The introduction of touchscreens in ATMs is an innovation that enhances user experience without causing a market upheaval.
  • Disruptive Innovation:
    • Definition: Disruptive innovation is a specific type of innovation that transforms existing markets or creates new ones.
    • Characteristics: It often starts with innovations that are simpler, more affordable, or more convenient, gradually gaining acceptance and challenging established players.
    • Example: The rise of streaming services disrupted the traditional cable TV industry by offering a more convenient and personalized viewing experience.

3- Is Incremental and Sustaining Innovation the Same?

Incremental innovation and sustaining innovation share similarities but differ in their scope and impact.

  • Incremental Innovation:
    • Definition: Incremental innovation involves small, continuous improvements to existing products, processes, or services.
    • Characteristics: It focuses on making gradual enhancements without fundamentally changing the nature of the offering.
    • Example: A software update that improves the user interface of an application represents incremental innovation.
  • Sustaining Innovation:
    • Definition: Sustaining innovation is a broader concept that encompasses incremental improvements but also includes more significant advancements to maintain market leadership.
    • Characteristics: It ensures a company’s continued relevance by responding to changing customer needs and market trends.
    • Example: The introduction of a new feature in a software product that addresses a key customer pain point represents sustaining innovation.

4- Which Type of Innovation Applies to Existing Markets and Existing Technologies?

Sustaining innovation is the primary type of innovation that applies to existing markets and technologies.

  • Sustaining Innovation:
    • Application: Sustaining innovation is well-suited for existing markets where companies strive to maintain their competitive edge by continually improving products and services.
    • Focus: It involves optimizing existing technologies and business models to meet evolving customer expectations and market demands.
    • Example: Regular updates and improvements to popular software applications demonstrate sustaining innovation in existing technology landscapes.