Lessons learned from radical innovators

Posted by Tasnim Ahmed

Radical innovation is the name of a management concept in which an existing business model is disrupted to develop a new market. 

Unlike incremental innovation — which focuses on revamping existing products and services — radical innovation blows up the system altogether to come up with something completely new. 

With radical innovation, the emphasis is on the impact of the innovation as opposed to its novelty. But it may take a long time for an innovation to be recognized as radical, and the time frame for most innovation studies is only two years.

Unlike incremental innovation, radical innovation often yields large returns by making a breakthrough. It promises long-term growth and when done right, entails fewer risks.

By introducing groundbreaking new products or services, radical innovators have a profound economic effect. They create a new market while obviating the need for existing products, business models and services. Nothing is recycled.

The mindset of radical innovators

Radical innovation requires a distinctive mindset. It necessitates someone who thinks outside the box to come up with fresh ideas. However, free thinkers who come up with revolutionary ideas are often written off as odd or even insane, so their ideas never gain momentum. 

Gino Cattani, a professor of management and organization at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and Simone Ferriani, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Bologna, argue that outsiders and individuals on the periphery of industry are often the source of transformative ideas. 

But individuals who work at the heart of a sector are the ones who are granted legitimacy, and they have the means to be heard due to their power and influence. On the flip side, their insider status simultaneously prevents them from making significant changes, or radical innovations, according to Cattani and Ferriani.

This dilemma is coined “the core-periphery conundrum” by the professors, who have teamed up to address this paradox. Why are resources concentrated among conformists, whereas the original ideas that propel society ahead are frequently generated by outsiders or, at the very least, those on the margins? Cattani and Ferriani's research aims to find a way to resolve this seeming contradiction.

Defining the core-periphery conundrum

According to Cattani and Ferriani, the periphery is a paradox. Peripherality can aid in the development of new ideas and may even be essential for radical innovation, but it also makes it difficult for those ideas to be recognized. This should not be the case; when radical innovation occurs, it should be given the credit it deserves, they write.

The core, on the other hand, is a place where ideas are legitimized and supported with the necessary resources and public backing. The danger is that the pressure to homogenize and perpetuate the status quo can also be a hindrance to radical innovation.

The professors refer to this situation as the core-periphery conundrum because radical innovation necessitates new ideas, associated with the periphery, but their acceptance is associated with the core. Radical innovators must be able to bridge the gap between the core and the peripheral. 

Finding a possible solution through history

Cattani and Ferriani use historical case studies to figure out what mechanisms transform someone from an outsider to a lauded member of society. For example, Coco Chanel began her career as an outsider who was dismissed for her unconventional point of view, but she is now considered a perennial legend of high fashion. 

Ultimately, her unique perspective and designs were accepted. Examining how Chanel broke societal barriers as an entrepreneur in the male-dominated fashion industry could inspire others on the margins to do the same.

Legitimizing ideas of outsiders

Cattani and Ferriani have created a series of insights on how outsiders might legitimize their beliefs, built from extensive research on the core-periphery conundrum and using a combination of statistical analyses and historical case studies. You can consider this as a guide for moving from the margins to the mainstream.

The professors list six steps for those on the periphery to move to the core, where their innovative ideas will be met with access to the resources they need.

  1. Disadvantages can drive you. Don’t allow disadvantages to defeat you. Make them the force that drives you. Your status as an outsider allows you to think differently and come up with new ideas.

  2. Make the most of your advantages. If you’re on the periphery, you have a certain degree of independence from social pressures and restraint. This lets you think about social and technical issues more critically. Your separation from the core is a benefit. So, take advantage of it.

  3. Understand the diverse nature of the audience. Different communities will have diverging reactions to ideas. Your strategy may not appeal to one audience but resonate appeal with another, or vice-versa. If you reach the right audience with your message, they may be receptive and allow your unconventional idea to gain momentum.

  4. Change the way you speak.

    Insiders have a unique way of speaking that expresses their subject-matter expertise. You must speak their language to win them over. Learn how insiders communicate and try to imitate them or hire someone who can. This will increase the likelihood of your unique concept being accepted.

  5. Overcome denial. Outsiders will experience rejection, antagonism and criticism on a regular basis. You must be tenacious to succeed. Another advantage you'll have over those in the core is the ability to maintain stamina in the face of hardship.

  6. Make your way in. Outsiders do not have access to the same platform as insiders. They must find their way in. Be on the lookout for ways to get your new ideas into mainstream conversation.

Takeaway: Advancement requires novelty. Regrettably, every industry's core tends to lack the big ideas required to solve major challenges. But outsiders can use their position to see things from a different perspective. 

The only way to solve the core-periphery conundrum is to help outsiders and those on the fringes to gain acceptance for their ideas. And radical innovation is a long-term investment that does not pay off right away. In the long run, however, it provides the opportunity to shape a new market.

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