A Tale of Two Innovations

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Every year, new startups come into existence out of the blue and go on to disrupt entire industries and rise to the top of the profitability charts; yet we all still use products and services from companies that are over 100 years old. Staying in business for that long requires a certain type of innovation and disrupting an entire industry calls for another. Which one is right for your business? Let me help you find out with a story: A Tale of Two Innovations.



First tale: Post-It

Once upon a time around the year 1968, a scientist named Spencer Silver who worked at 3M in the US was trying to develop a super-strong adhesive, but instead, he accidentally created a weak pressure-sensitive adhesive that later became the glue on today’s Post-Its. However, for nearly 6 years, despite his efforts in promoting his new innovation, he did not get much positive response. Why you might ask? Because his solution was not solving any problem!

Sticky notes


Until one sunny day in 1974, one of Spencer’s colleagues named Art Fry thought of using Spencer’s adhesive to solve a particular problem he had. He used it to anchor his bookmark in his hymn book. Excited about this idea, he went to the lab next-door and picked a stack of scrap paper that happened to be yellow. And that was the moment Post-It was born.

The product was first launched as “Press ‘n Peel” bookmark, but later in 1979, 3M changed the name to Post-It. Today not only can you buy the iconic yellow square Post-It in several colors and sizes, but also choose between a variety of brands such as Super Sticky Notes (that sticks to other surfaces than just paper) and Post-It Extreme Notes that has more durability and is water-resistant and can be used in construction and manufacturing environments.



Second tale: LinkedIn’s Find Nearby Feature

You most probably know and use LinkedIn. LinkedIn has a simple mission: connect the world’s professionals (online) to make them more productive and successful. The company recently launched its new “Find Nearby Feature” that allows people in the same physical space to quickly find each other online on the LinkedIn platform. So when you are at a professional workshop or conference, instead of exchanging business cards like it’s 1965, you can now simply open the LinkedIn app on your phone and find the people who are physically near you and connect with them on LinkedIn.

The Find Nearby feature is nothing less of innovation as it smoothly introduces a “better” solution to an existing problem. This innovation fits right into the mission of LinkedIn, and on top of that, it provides a solution to the problem of exchanging contact information which LinkedIn users have had for years.

The significance of this innovation is not that exchanging business cards did not solve this particular problem. It’s also not that people couldn’t search for each other’s names on LinkedIn and send connection requests to each other. It is that LinkedIn sustains its business and gets a step closer to fulfilling its vision by providing a convenient way for people to solve their problem of exchanging professional contact information.



Disruptive vs Sustaining innovation:

There are some noticeable differences in these two stories:

  • Post-It was a solution in search of a problem and Find Nearby Feature was the solution for a problem that was waiting to be solved.
  • Post-It improved collaboration in the physical world. LinkedIn’s Find Nearby Feature improved the way people connect in the digital world.
  • Post-It was a disruptive innovation. LinkedIn’s Find Nearby Feature was a sustaining innovation.

Through the adoption of agile software development in the last two decades, Post-It has become a necessary artifact in the software industry, and it keeps innovating to sustain and expand its business into new market segments such as construction and manufacturing that I mentioned earlier with their water-resistant Post-Its.

Innovation can be that revolutionary new product or service that disrupts an entire industry or how we use an ordinary tool such as paper! It can also be a small new feature that significantly improves people’s experience of an existing product or service. This mesmerizing video shows the rise of disruptive innovative companies throughout the years… but if you look closely, you can also spot the companies that are staying in the top chart through sustaining innovation:



Whatever you do, if you want your business to survive, you need to start innovating somewhere: sometimes with the problem, sometimes with the solution. Sometimes the solution you end up creating is purely physical and sometimes it’s entirely digital. At times you will have a revolutionary new creation and other times you will release a small improvement on an existing product.

How does your company work on innovation? Should you be working on a disruptive innovation that would change humanity’s entire perception of an existing artifact or service? Or should you focus on sustaining innovation that makes life easier for your customers? 

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