Innovation vs Iteration in Technology: Are You Breeding a Faster Horse or Inventing the Car?

You only have three choices when it comes to technology development: You can maintain, you can incrementally improve, or you can pioneer. To do any of them well, you have to decide which one you are after.

In today’s enterprise space, catchphrases originated by tech luminaries are invading corporate IT without much thought.  Phrases such as “iterate quickly”, “fail fast” and “minimum viable product” are being thrown around like rote confetti with an implied confidence that these are de facto truths that can not be argued against.

It may be the “in” thing to say that you “fail fast,” but at the same time, you may be missing an important point. Fail fast to what end?

Iteration in technology is like Darwinism:

  • Take something that already exists
  • Come up with a new concept (feature, function, what have you)
  • Build the concept
  • Test this concept
  • Use the new data to make future tweaks

This by definition is evolution-style development: make observations, validate a hypothesis, update your beliefs, repeat.  You can iterate quickly or fail fast, but your achievements by design will be incremental. I liken this to horse breeding.  

Race horses today are much faster than even 10 years ago due to an incremental tweaking of diet, training, and genetics over time.   However – the counter-point as Henry Ford famously said (*or didn’t),

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.”  

To iterate quickly, fail fast or produce an MVP is “how” you do something.  It is the means or the approach to get somewhere. But the “what” is missing. What do you want to achieve? Are you breeding a faster horse or are you creating the first car? Are you improving or are you innovating – because you don’t innovate through iteration.

Rather than adopt popular adages, I urge technology leaders to begin with the end in mind. Ask yourself what are the strategic objectives of your IT project. Be clear if your intent is to maintain, iterate or pioneer.  Then execute accordingly.

If you are in a position where you need to digitally transform your business, you are embarking on a revolutionary initiative that will require invention over iteration. However, if you are trying to deliver pre-existing business value better, faster, or cheaper these are evolutionary concepts where iteration is well suited. Once you and your team are clear about the mission, pick an approach and throw that confetti until you get to where you want to go.