Iteration through the Spectrum


Poor Iteration. Its cousin Innovation continually gets celebrated while Iteration is responsible for most of the day-to-day success of businesses. Plus, many activities and updates are labeled as “innovations” when they are actually iterations of an established product or service.

The vast majority of updates and product launches are actually iterations of existing marketplace entries. Nevertheless, they get labeled, by both the business and the press, as innovations. Let’s take a slightly closer look at some examples to see the problem. Disposable shaving razors are called innovative merely because they add swivel-ball hinge. But, merely updating the hinge joint of a razor is still just iterative. These fishing lures get tagged as innovative when they’re really just adding a hook in the middle or updating a color or size. Just because a product is improved doesn’t mean it’s innovative. And, extra legroom, greater trunk capacity, more color options for a car are innovative? Please.

Each of those examples are really just iterations or variations of existing products. No activities needed to be drastically changed. Customers didn’t have to learn new skills to use them. Nor did Sales or Marketing need to change their approach to offering these products. These are just iterations, but iterations can be good.

Understand Iteration
Most of the true success of a product derives from its iterative phases rather than the innovative ones. Don’t get me wrong, Innovation is still essential. You’re sure to get left behind without it. Iterating based on market research, analytics, testing and refinement help establish innovative products as successful. Failing to iterate a new product means it will surely get surpassed by competitors through duplication, underpricing or just better marketing. It’s the iterations of an original innovation that keep worthy products as market leaders.

Wrongly thinking of new products as innovations rather than iterations can lead to poor implementation practices when authentic innovations come along.
Consider the iPhone. It’s rightly considered an innovative product (but maybe not for the reasons you think). But if users were stuck using the original iPhone for the past 10 years it would be pretty unsatisfying. And, of course, it would never have made it this long as a product. It’s easy to lament when Apple doesn’t offer something exciting and new from a product release. But, had Apple not continually iterated improvements over the past 10 years, other smartphone makers would have easily captured (even more of) its customers. It’s the iPhone’s improvements though iterations that have kept its market share profitable and strong. Don’t forget, Apple is still the most highly valued company in the world (as of publication date), and its success isn’t solely due to innovation.

The strategic move to Iteration
Shifting activities from Originating to Sustaining is an integral part of the Strategic Positioning Spectrum. Iteration also allows time to refine and settle into the unique activities that support a product. It’s these activities that truly make a product or service that’s innovative sustainable. Allowing those supportive, and self-reinforcing activities be refined and improved is a key opportunity for Operational Effectiveness. The folks in R&D get plenty of accolades, but our Six Sigma, Agile and Lean friends deserve plenty of love too.

In fact, it’s pretty important to get an innovation into the realm of those gifted at Operational Effectiveness and efficiency tactics and out of the hands of the innovative, “new idea” folks. The latter will inevitably change value aspects of a product merely for the sake of change. (Yes, too much innovation can be a problem.)

Originating Iteration
Some iteration does crossover into an Originating area of The Spectrum. This generally applies to a product that is several iterative levels ahead of the previous version but still uses very similar activities to sustain it. Consider the Run-flat tire. Developing the new technologies to design and produce a tire that can still be driven on when very low on air required iterations past mere improved strength or tread. But run-flat tires are still tires filled with air and made of materials very similar to regular tires. There is certainly new technology and manufacturing processes present, but many the same supportive activities needed for standard tires still apply. For this reason, I don’t think the product as a whole should be considered “innovative,” even if some the the technologies used to make it are.

Originating iterations can be great methods for providing pressure to competition without needing to research and develop a truly new (and potentially risky) innovation. Businesses may get many of the benefits often associated with innovation without requiring the new activities and processes to support it.

Far be it for me to suggest that Innovation isn’t necessary. Without it, you’ll be soon done for. But, focusing your activities and energies primarily on innovation and forgetting the success that iteration provides can be just as big a mistake as not innovating at all.


The Strategic Web is an independent consultancy focused on innovation strategy. I help businesses and organizations develop strategies to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and progress out of static practices.

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Scott Hutcheson