I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to be disruptive. On the contrary, I applaud their ambition. But disruption is hard to come by, and, as entrepreneurs, it can’t be our sole motivation. As I’ve stated before, too many talented people are sitting on the sidelines waiting for that disruptive idea that never comes. And that’s a shame.
My take on this reality is that we need to be more incrementalist in nature. We should applaud and recognize when talented people set their sites on obvious, noteworthy problems that are in need of more elegant and more usable solutions. It’s my belief that these pursuits are just as likely to throw markets into a frenzy as their purposefully disruptive counterparts. Their core advantage, however, is that the bar is not set so dauntingly high. With incrementalism, we can invent without the weight of worry that we’re not being clever or unique enough. We can compete with reality—not the legends of Edison and Jobs.
When I discuss the importance of incrementalism, I usually reference glass—that stuff in our windowpanes, our computer chips, our cookware, and our neon bar signs.
Here’s why: As far as we can tell, man-made glass came into existence around 3,500 BC in Eastern Mesopotamia and Babylonia. It took another 5,200 years for the French to come along and develop plate glass, which resulted in lower production costs and more reasonable glass prices. It wasn’t for another century, though, circa 1838, that the British pioneered sheet glass, and prices plummeted to the point that, as Bill Bryson puts it, glass could finally be “produced economically in limitless volumes.”
If you read about these two advancements, you might say, “Dang, those Frenchies and Brits sure disrupted the glass market!”
I’d argue otherwise.
By the time the French and British began their advancements, the craftsmen of days past had already figured out how to rid glass of its pesky greenish tint; they had already created formulas that gave their glass considerably greater flux, lightness, and durability; they had already invented Cristallo; and they had already discovered and progressed the glass grinders and polishers.
The French and the British simply recognized the advancements of civilization (e.g., compressed air technology, more efficient furnaces), and they exploited them in their glass-making exercises. When put into context it was a slow and steady growth that gave us what has become one of our most essential substances.
Critics will probably argue that incrementalism is just a re-framing of the disruption conversation. That’s not really my concern. My concern is that we lower the bar for innovation and foster an environment where someone can get out the greenish tint, the next guy can add the ash to increase the flux, the next guy can create the hot-enough furnace, and finally, someone can put it all together and go, “Hot damn, I just invented sheet glass.”Tweet