Sustaining innovation, also known as “incremental innovation,” refers to the ongoing process of making minor improvements to existing products, services, or processes within an organization. It is a type of innovation that aims to enhance the performance, features, or attributes of current offerings to maintain or slightly expand an organization’s market share and competitive advantage.

Sustaining innovation typically involves refining and optimizing existing technologies, products, or business practices.

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Sustaining innovation is said to be the opposite of disruptive innovation. But both provide advantages and disadvantages, which we’ll discuss in greater detail below.

How Does Sustaining Innovation Differ from Disruptive Innovation?

In contrast to sustaining innovation, disruptive innovation involves introducing entirely new products, services, or business models to disrupt existing markets and sometimes create new ones.

While sustaining innovation is crucial for maintaining market presence, organizations should also be attentive to the potential for disruption and consider a balanced innovation strategy that incorporates both incremental and disruptive elements to remain competitive.

What Are the Key Characteristics of Sustaining Innovation?

Sustaining innovation has key characteristics that we’ll discuss below.

  • Incremental changes: Sustaining innovation involves making gradual and evolutionary improvements rather than radical or disruptive changes. These improvements are often based on customer feedback, market research, or insights gained from ongoing operations.
  • Preservation of core competencies: Organizations focus on leveraging existing strengths and capabilities to make products or services better. That often involves building on their core competencies and leveraging existing resources, knowledge, and infrastructure.
  • Customer-centric: Sustaining innovation is driven by a desire to meet customer needs and preferences better. It aims to enhance customer satisfaction and loyalty by delivering improved or more reliable products or services.
  • Market stability: Sustaining innovation is well-suited for industries with relatively stable markets, where customer preferences evolve gradually, and the competition is not characterized by disruptive change.
  • Risk management: Sustaining innovation is less risky than disruptive innovation because it relies on existing knowledge and infrastructure. It is a way for organizations to manage risks while still staying competitive.
  • Competitive advantage: The goal of sustaining innovation is to maintain or slightly improve a company’s competitive position in its existing market. By continually enhancing products or services, organizations can retain their customer base and potentially increase market share.
Key Characteristics of Sustaining Innovation

What Are the Types of Sustaining Innovation?

Sustaining innovation can take various forms, depending on the specific area or aspect of improvement within a company. Here are some common types of sustaining innovation.

  • Product improvement: This type of sustaining innovation involves enhancing the features, performance, or quality of existing products. It may include adding new features, improving materials, optimizing manufacturing processes, or increasing the durability and reliability of products. For example, smartphone manufacturers regularly release new models with improved cameras, faster processors, and longer battery life.
  • Service enhancement: Sustaining innovation in services involves making incremental improvements to how they are delivered to customers. That can include better customer support, more efficient service processes, faster response times, and improved service quality. For instance, a fast-food chain can enhance services by introducing a mobile app for online orders and deliveries.
  • Process optimization: Companies can engage in sustaining innovation by optimizing internal processes to increase efficiency, reduce costs, and improve operational quality of their operations. That may involve implementing new technologies, automation, and lean manufacturing practices to streamline production, supply chain management (SCM), or customer service.
  • Cost reduction: Sustaining innovation can also focus on finding ways to reduce the production and operational costs of existing products or services. That can involve sourcing materials more cost-effectively, renegotiating supplier contracts, or finding more energy-efficient production methods.
  • Design refinement: Companies can continuously refine the design of their products, packaging, or user interfaces (UIs) to make them more aesthetically pleasing, user-friendly, and ergonomic. These design enhancements can improve the overall customer experience and differentiate products in the market.
  • Market expansion: Expanding into new geographical markets or customer segments is a form of sustaining innovation. That may involve adapting existing products or services to meet various customer groups’ requirements or targeting new regions with existing offerings.
  • Life cycle extension: Extending the product or service life cycle by offering maintenance and support, spare parts, or upgrades is another type of sustaining innovation. For example, software companies frequently release updates and patches to keep their products secure and up to date.
  • Sustainability initiatives: Sustaining innovation can also involve making products and processes more environmentally friendly. Companies may develop and implement sustainable practices, such as using renewable materials, reducing energy consumption, or minimizing waste generation.
  • Customer experience enhancement: Improving the overall customer experience through better support, more straightforward navigation, and personalized recommendations is a form of sustaining innovation. E-commerce platforms often implement features like chatbots, personalized product recommendations, and improved website UIs to enhance the customer experience.
  • Supply chain optimization: Enhancing the supply chain to reduce lead times, lower inventory levels, and enhance overall efficiency is another aspect of sustaining innovation. That can result in cost savings and improved responsiveness to market demand.

Sustaining innovation is not limited to a single category, and companies may engage in several of them simultaneously. It is a continuous process that enables organizations to stay competitive and relevant by adapting and evolving products, services, and processes to meet changing customer expectations and market dynamics.

Key Takeaways

  • Sustaining innovation refers to the ongoing process of making minor improvements to existing products, services, or processes within an organization.
  • Incremental changes, preservation of core competencies, and customer-centric are just a few of the critical characteristics of sustaining innovation.
  • Sustaining innovation can take the form of product improvement, service enhancement, and process optimization, among many others.