Unlock the Anatomy of Layered Innovation

Multi-colored layer cake cut open to reveal the layers, symbolizing the Anatomy of Layered Innovation

‘Innovation’ is a curious word to define: although the Latin root ‘innovare’ simply means to renew or change, it can mean different things to different people depending on context. It is also a complex landscape, full of twists and turns that can either lead to groundbreaking success or a dead-end. Have you ever wondered how to navigate this intricate maze effectively through layered innovation? If so, you’re not alone. Many organizations and individuals struggle with the same question every day, seeking to understand the layers that make up the innovation process.

Fortunately, there are academic frameworks that offer a roadmap for this journey. Among them, the Three Layers of Innovation and Strategic Niche Management stand out for their practicality and depth. Grounded in academic research, these frameworks provide actionable insights that can guide you through the various stages of innovation. 

For instance, consider the humble paperclip. Its design has evolved over the years, moving from a simple bent wire to more ergonomic and aesthetic designs. This evolution is a testament to incremental innovation, which focuses on solving the simple yet persistent problem of keeping papers together. 

By understanding and applying these frameworks, you can turn innovation from a daunting challenge into a structured process, ripe with opportunities for growth and success.

Revisiting the Argentina Wine Innovation Case

In a previous article Breaking Free for Innovation, we explored the transformation of Argentina’s wine industry into a global competitor. The journey was far from straightforward; it required a blend of incremental and radical innovations, particularly in irrigation and soil management. These changes were the result of years of research, experimentation, and strategic planning.

The outcome has been nothing short of remarkable. Argentina has transformed its wine industry into a global powerhouse, exporting high-quality wines that have won numerous international awards. This case serves as a compelling example of how layered innovation can turn a struggling sector into a success story.

Vineyard in Cafayates, Argentina

So, what do we mean by “layered innovation” in this context? Initially, incremental innovations were made in irrigation techniques and soil management. These were small, yet significant changes that improved grape quality. Once these incremental changes were established, they paved the way for more radical innovations. New grape varieties were introduced, and advanced fermentation techniques were employed, leading to a significant shift in the quality and variety of wines produced. Finally, these radical changes set the stage for game-changing innovations, such as entering new global markets and leveraging digital marketing to reach a broader audience.

However, could this transformation have been even more impactful? One area for potential improvement could be in the realm of sustainability. While Argentina has made strides in sustainable farming practices, there’s room for incorporating more eco-friendly technologies and methods. For instance, the use of solar-powered irrigation systems could further reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. Additionally, a focus on biodynamic farming could not only improve soil health but also offer a unique selling proposition in a crowded market.

By revisiting this case, we can see the value of a layered approach to innovation. Incremental changes set the stage for radical shifts, which in turn open the door for game-changing innovations. But even in a success story like Argentina’s, there’s always room for improvement and further innovation.

Unpacking the Three Layers of Innovation

The concept of the Three Layers of Innovation, although not the only of its kind, is a framework that categorizes innovation into three distinct types: incremental, radical, and game-changing. Understanding these layers is crucial for any innovator, as it helps to identify where your idea fits and how to approach its development and implementation.

Incremental Innovation

Incremental innovations are those that focus on small, continuous improvements. These are the types of changes that might not make headlines but are essential for any business or industry’s growth. For instance, consider the transition from wired to wireless earphones. This change didn’t revolutionize the audio industry, but it certainly made life more convenient for millions of people. Companies like Apple and Samsung continually invest in incremental innovations to improve battery life, sound quality, and user interface in their products. Typically, incremental innovation optimizes existing products for current markets and consumers.

Radical Innovation

Radical innovations, on the other hand, involve significant shifts that disrupt existing practices. They often require a change in behavior or the adoption of new skills. The shift from feature phones to smartphones is a prime example. This change didn’t just improve an existing technology; it transformed the way we communicate, work, and entertain ourselves. Radical innovation aims to expand business towards ‘new to company’ markets and consumers. Companies like Uber and Airbnb have also employed radical innovation by disrupting traditional taxi and hotel industries, respectively.

Game-Changing Innovation

Lastly, game-changing or transformational innovations are those that redefine industries altogether. These are the innovations that make us rethink how we’ve been doing things and question whether there’s a better way. It will drive business to develop new products for new markets and consumers. Streaming services like Netflix and Spotify have revolutionized the entertainment industry, making physical media like DVDs and CDs almost obsolete. These platforms leveraged the power of the internet and cloud computing to provide a more convenient and personalized experience for the user.

Adding more layers

Some practitioners work with even more detailed layers. For example, Jim Kalbach’s Clarifying Innovation: Four Zones of Innovation article I came across some time ago, refines radical innovation into ‘breakthrough’ and ‘disruptive’. Breakthrough innovations promise significant improvements in performance compared with existing product. Disruptive innovations address underserved market needs with products that are more convenient to access, easier to use, and cheaper to buy, with a potential change in business model.

Jim Kalbach – “Clarifying Innovation: Four Zones of Innovation”

The Interplay of the Layers

Understanding these layers individually is important, and recognizing how they interact is crucial for a holistic approach to innovation. Incremental innovations often pave the way for more radical changes. For example, improvements in internet speed and reliability set the stage for the rise of streaming services, a game-changing innovation. Similarly, radical innovations can create new opportunities for incremental improvements. The introduction of electric cars, a radical innovation, has led to incremental advancements in battery technology and charging infrastructure.

By unpacking these layers, we can better understand the dynamics of innovation. It allows us to see that innovation isn’t a one-size-fits-all process but a complex interplay of different types of changes that can occur at various levels and in multiple dimensions.

The Role of Strategic Niche Management

Strategic Niche Management (SNM) is a concept that originated from academic research, offering a structured approach in fields such as wind energy, biomass, public transport systems or food production, to navigate the complexities of  introducing and diffusing new sustainable ideas into the market through societal experiments. It serves as a crucial tool for fostering and scaling innovations, especially those that are radical or game-changing in nature.

Identifying the Niche

The first step in SNM is identifying a niche market where the innovation can be tested and refined. This is a critical phase, as choosing the wrong niche can lead to wasted resources and potential failure. For example, electric cars initially targeted a niche market of environmentally conscious consumers. This specific focus allowed manufacturers to gather valuable feedback without the risks associated with a broader market launch.

Experimentation and Learning

Once the niche is identified, the next step is experimentation. This involves introducing the innovation to the niche market and learning from the results. The aim is to understand how the market responds, what adjustments are needed, and how the innovation can be improved. Companies like Tesla used this phase to perfect their electric car technology, making necessary adjustments based on customer feedback and real-world performance data.

Scaling the Innovation

After successful experimentation and learning, the focus shifts to scaling the innovation. This is where SNM becomes particularly valuable. It provides a roadmap for taking a product from a niche market to a broader audience, reducing the risks associated with mass production and market introduction. For instance, electric cars have now moved beyond the niche of environmentally conscious consumers and are becoming increasingly popular among the general public. This scaling was made possible through strategic planning and the iterative process of SNM.

Potential Pitfalls and Mitigation Strategies

However, SNM is not without its challenges. One of the potential pitfalls is becoming too focused on the niche market, which can limit the innovation’s broader applicability. To mitigate this, it’s essential to continually assess the market dynamics and be willing to pivot or adjust the strategy as needed. Companies that successfully employ SNM are those that remain flexible and responsive to market changes.

By understanding and applying the principles of Strategic Niche Management, innovators can significantly increase the likelihood of their product’s success. It offers a structured approach that guides the innovation from its infancy in a niche market to its maturity in a broader context, thereby maximizing its potential impact.


Understanding the layers of innovation and employing strategic niche management tools can offer a competitive edge in today’s fast-paced world. The Argentina wine case serves as a practical guide, showcasing how a layered approach to innovation can transform an entire industry. If Argentina’s wine producers would had remained stagnant, focusing only on traditional methods, they would have missed the opportunity to become a global wine powerhouse. By embracing innovation at all levels—incremental, radical, and game-changing—the country has set a precedent that others can follow.

But what does this mean for you? Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a business leader, or someone interested in the mechanics of change, these frameworks offer a roadmap. They help you identify where your innovation fits and guide you through its development and scaling. The key takeaway is that innovation is not a linear process but a complex interplay of different layers and strategies.

So, the next time you find yourself at a crossroads in your innovation journey, remember these frameworks. They could be the roadmap you need to navigate the complex terrain of innovation successfully. And always be open to learning and adapting, as even the most successful innovations have room for improvement.

The Intersection of Culture and Sustainable Innovation


In an increasingly interconnected world, the quest for sustainability often transcends borders. However, what often gets overlooked is the role of culture in shaping and accepting sustainable solutions. How can organizations navigate this complex landscape to create truly impactful, purpose-driven innovations? This article delves into the intersection of culture and sustainable innovation, offering actionable insights for businesses and NGOs alike.

Cultural Sensitivity in Design Thinking

The Importance of Context

Design thinking is a human-centered approach that thrives on empathy and understanding. But how well can we understand a user if we don’t take into account their cultural background? Cultural sensitivity enriches the design thinking process by adding another layer of context, making solutions more relatable and effective.

Actionable Insight: Conduct a Cultural Audit

Before diving into problem-solving, conduct a cultural audit to understand the norms, values, and behaviors of the target community. This will inform every stage of your design thinking process, from ideation to prototyping. It involves gathering data through methods like surveys and interviews, identifying key cultural indicators, and then using these insights to inform your strategy. This ensures that your initiatives are not just effective but also culturally sensitive.

Global Trends vs Local Needs

The Balancing Act

While sustainability is a universal aim, the journey to achieve it often varies from place to place. Organizations frequently encounter the complex task of merging global sustainability trends with local needs and preferences. This is because what works in one region may not necessarily be effective in another due to cultural, economic, or environmental differences.

For instance, a global fast-food chain aiming to reduce plastic waste might introduce reusable containers in a Western market successfully. However, in a developing country where the focus might be more on food security rather than waste management, the same initiative could fall flat.

Therefore, it’s crucial for organizations to tailor their sustainability strategies to fit the local context, ensuring not just global impact but also local relevance.

Actionable Insight: Engage Local Stakeholders

Engaging local stakeholders in the decision-making process is a crucial step for the success of any sustainability initiative. These stakeholders could be community leaders, local experts, or even everyday consumers who are directly impacted by your project. Their unique perspectives offer invaluable context that you might not get from external research alone. For example, they can help identify local customs or preferences that could either aid or hinder the adoption of your sustainable solution.

By involving them early on, you not only gain their trust but also create a sense of shared ownership. This collaborative approach increases the likelihood that your sustainability initiatives will be both effective and widely accepted.

Case Studies: Lessons from the Field

Success Story: Unilever’s Lifebuoy in India

Context: Unilever aimed to tackle the issue of poor hygiene in rural India through its Lifebuoy soap, which is an affordable and effective way to prevent diseases.

Approach: Understanding the cultural significance of religious rituals in India, Unilever launched the “Help a Child Reach 5” campaign. The campaign was kicked off in Thesgora, a village with one of the highest rates of diarrhoea, and focused on the importance of handwashing at key times, like before eating or after visiting the toilet. The campaign was tied to religious and cultural rituals, making it culturally sensitive and effective.

Outcome: The campaign was a huge success, not just in terms of sales but also in genuinely reducing cases of diarrhoea and other diseases related to poor hygiene.

Actionable Insight: Align with Cultural Practices

When your product or service aligns with deeply ingrained cultural practices, it stands a better chance of being accepted and making a meaningful impact. Unilever didn’t just market the soap as a hygiene product; they tied it to local customs and religious rituals, emphasizing handwashing as a sacred act that can save lives. By doing so, they tapped into cultural values that go beyond mere utility, making the product not just useful but also culturally meaningful. This alignment led to greater acceptance and impact, proving that understanding local culture can be a game-changer.

Reference: https://www.lifebuoy.com/ca/en/mission/help-a-child-reach-5.html

Cautionary Tale: Tesla in China

Context: Tesla entered the Chinese market with much fanfare but faced several challenges, including cultural ones.

Approach: Tesla’s direct-to-customer sales model, which worked well in the United States, did not resonate with Chinese consumers who value the experience of a traditional car dealership. Furthermore, the individualistic branding did not resonate in a culture that places a high value on community and collective well-being.

Outcome: Tesla initially saw disappointing sales and had to adjust its approach, including a more traditional retail presence and features catering to local tastes, like a “Chinese New Year” mode.

Actionable Insight: Adapt Your Business Model

Sometimes the challenge isn’t just about the car itself but how you bring it to the market. Tesla learned this the hard way in China. While their direct-to-customer model was a hit in the U.S., it didn’t resonate in China where customers value the traditional dealership experience. Tesla had to adapt not just the product features but their entire business model, including setting up showrooms and offering a more personalized retail experience. This shift shows that understanding and adapting to local cultural norms can be as crucial as the product itself.

Reference: Analysis of Tesla’s Business Strategy in China – ResearchGate

Thought-Provoking Questions

  • How can cultural understanding amplify the impact of your sustainability efforts?
  • What role does culture play in the acceptance and success of sustainable products or services?
  • Are there ethical considerations when implementing sustainable solutions across diverse cultures?


Culture isn’t a side note; it’s at the core of any successful sustainable innovation strategy. Ignoring it can lead to missed opportunities or even failure, while embracing it can open doors to deeper impact and wider acceptance. By weaving cultural insights into your design thinking process and actively involving local stakeholders, you’re not just ticking off a sustainability checklist; you’re building solutions that resonate on a cultural level.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Cultural Audit: Before diving into a new project, consider conducting a cultural audit to understand the local values, beliefs, and behaviors.
  2. Local Stakeholder Engagement: Involve local experts and community members in the decision-making process. Their insights can be invaluable.
  3. Adapt and Evolve: Be prepared to adapt not just your product but potentially your entire business model to align with local cultural norms.

Actionable Steps:

  1. Research: Start with a deep dive into the cultural aspects of the community or market you’re targeting.
  2. Collaborate: Build partnerships with local organizations or leaders who can offer nuanced insights.
  3. Test and Iterate: Before fully launching, test your solution in a smaller segment of your target market to gather feedback for refinement.

By taking these steps, you’re not just creating a sustainable solution; you’re crafting an initiative that’s culturally attuned, thereby increasing its potential for success and impact.

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