Can incremental development lead to quantum leaps and breakthrough products?

Yes, continuous development can lead to “sudden” breakthroughs and disruptive products. I got started on this topic in the discussion thread of the HBR article on continuous agile

…continuous development does appear as “quantum” changes through the mechanism that you suggest. I compare it to “punctuated equilibrium” in evolutionary theory. When we look at the fossil record, we see quantum changes, where one species is replaced by another without any intervening evolution. What ACTUALLY happened is that there was rapid evolution in a small “island” population, not seen in the fossil record. That created a new species that suddenly overran the original population in the fossil location.

The same thing happens with product development. You do rapid continuous development with some sort of fringe or “nonconsumer” customer. Your large base of normal customers does not see this happening (and why bother them, if they are paying you happily). Then, when you have an awesome product that is different (because it was originally developed for a different type of customer), you do a full launch and everyone sees it as a sudden quantum change.

This type of innovation has a close relationship to Clayton Christensen’s idea of disruptive innovation targeting “non-consumers“. If you are developing improvements for your existing customers, you can do it incrementally, and you end up with “sustaining” innovations. They improve the existing product lines, but they don’t create new winners and losers. Incumbent vendors use this technique to stay strong. If you target non-consumers of the existing products, you end up with something different, and you can beat incumbents with it (as Christensen says, “disrupt”). These non-consumers are different, and they pull you toward a different (often cheaper) product.

So, breakthroughs come from non-consumers or unusual, fringe customers, and they come from SMALL GROUPS of non-consumers or fringe customers. In my evolutionary experiments, I see that rapid evolution takes place in small “islands”. Theorists of biological evolution observe that these island populations are often at the edge or a range or under some special stress — they are fringe groups, not happy core populations. Large populations don’t evolve. They regress to the mean. You can’t get breakthrough products from a big, fat, generally happy customer base.

So, you can use continuous development to create a continuous stream of improvements for your existing products. This will come naturally if you are building and testing all of your improvements with your existing customer base.

Or, you can use continuous development to create truly new and disruptive products. The trick is to target non-consumers — people that won’t buy your existing product. Work with a small group of these prospects. Run the continuous.development process. Don’t advertise. Make something awesome. Then, you can bring it back to your existing customers, and surprise them.

Originally published at andysingleton.com.

SaaS entrepreneur/engineer. Founder of MAXOS, Real World DeFi. Previously founded Assembla, PowerSteering Software, on team at SNL Financial.

SaaS entrepreneur/engineer. Founder of MAXOS, Real World DeFi. Previously founded Assembla, PowerSteering Software, on team at SNL Financial.