When people talk about innovation, they often envision big technical or conceptual advances that have profound and lasting impact. Corning Inc.’s research in low-loss fused silica in the 1970s, which paved the way for breakthroughs in fiber optic communications, sensing, and imaging applications, falls into this category. Early research by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which established the foundations of machine-to-machine communication protocols and the Internet, clearly does too.
Significant leaps are rare occurrences in most domains, the authors note, and the accepted wisdom involving risk and return has led many to assume that high returns from breakthrough innovations are only attainable with high risk. However, the authors have found that important opportunities can arise when the focus is placed not only on the investment but also on how it is pursued. Rather than looking at so-called “moonshots,” they examine a proactive and comparatively less risky approach to pursuing high-impact innovation — one that strings together “lily pads” of capability-building investments, technical and conceptual advances, and market explorations into what the authors call “enabling innovations.”
With the lily pad strategy, innovators pursue a series of lower-risk initiatives, rather than risking large amounts of resources on one path. To do this, they must link the current capabilities of their solutions, whether in parts or as a whole, to end-user needs in application spaces ready to accept them. The goal isn’t to satisfy a specific end-user or application (although innovators typically do have a long-term target end-user or application in mind). Rather, it’s to satisfy any end-user who will adopt now. The reason is simple: Adoption leads to resources and/or cash flow, which allows the work to continue and creates a “lily pad” on which the innovation initiative can “land” on its way to a larger goal. The idea is to jump across lily pads — even in spaces that may seem of secondary strategic importance — as early as possible as a means of building interest in the concept (internally and externally).
Drawing on examples such as the development of X-ray and GPS technology, mobile robots, crowdsourcing, and microlending, the authors argue that it’s useful to think about innovation impact proactively along four dimensions: reach, significance, paradigm change, and longevity. They look at three stages of impact: the breakthrough period, the enabling window, and what they refer to as the progressive innovation cascade. They argue that, whatever the specific context, the pattern and the impact dimensions remain similar, making the model broadly applicable to multiple investment and decision-making circumstances.