Some of the most successful companies in the world experienced huge growth as the result of a game changing innovation.  A few, like the Sony Walkman or the Apple iPod, were products, but others, such as Wal-Mart’s distribution system and Google’s search/advertising link, were fundamental shifts in business practice that redefined markets far outside of the innovator’s core business.

In strategic planning, it is always useful to consider the possibility of game-changing innovation.  If you can instigate the innovation, or ride it to success, that’s great.  Even if you can’t, though, you need to be aware of the possibility that it will become part of the competitive environment in your industry – and one that you need to be prepared for.  Failure to prepare for a massive game change has doomed more than one otherwise successful business.

How do we cause, anticipate, or at least spot upcoming game changing innovations?  And when we see them coming, how can we sort the real thing from those that will have little or no impact?  To begin with, here are a few important characteristics of game-changing innovations:

1.       Game changing product innovations almost always define a new category – whether it is “role playing games”, “MP3 players” or “non-stick cookware”.

2.       All game changing innovations fulfill a critical unmet wish that customers have about the current status quo.

3.       Game changing innovations usually seem impossible or unfeasible a short time before their introduction.

4.       Real game-changers usually ride one or two clear changes in technology that make a new way of thinking about the product or process possible.

5.       In mature industries, game-changes are usually driven by established players who are NOT in first place, while developing industries usually see their game-changes driven by second-movers.

The frustrating thing about these characteristics is that it is difficult for, say, your R&D or engineering people to sit down tomorrow and start working on the next game-changing innovation for your industry.  Still, these attributes can be used to modify your strategic thinking so that you are more likely to generate the next game change.

The key to improving your odds in this arena is to modify your strategic processes to make game-changing innovation more recognizable and more likely.  In particular, your strategic planning process can be modified to stimulate consideration of game-changing innovation – and to give such innovations more fertile ground in which to take root, when you do spot them.

The above characteristics are also reasons why companies often completely miss game-changing opportunities.  Knowing these characteristics, the process of recognizing the possibility for game change in your industry should follow four steps:

1.        Pay close attention to the needs and preferences in each of your market segments.  Even seemingly impossible preferences (such as “instant shipping” or “real time information on orders”) should be listed.

2.       When generating your perceived opportunities, make sure you consider ways your product or service could be used to define an entirely new category – or a way that an indirect competitor could service your customers’ needs in a completely new way.

3.       Never discard seemingly impractical or unfeasible opportunities in the first phase of opportunity screening.  Wherever you can find a champion, make sure you have one or two opportunities that stretch the limits of practicality in your opportunity screening worksheets.

4.       Have one or two people on your team (and possibly a skilled outside strategist) who keep track of new technologies entirely outside your industry, so you can consider their application in your strategic planning.

5.       If you are the number two player in an industry, pay special attention to ways you can change the rules for your customers and suppliers.  Game changing innovation is EXACTLY what you need to take the number one spot!

Are you in an industry where the game could change in the next year, two years or five years?  Make sure you take these steps in your strategic planning process to improve your odds of being one of the successful players – and avoid being one of the casualties!

Robert Bradford is President/CEO of the Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc.  He can be reached at

© Copyright 2011 by Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI — Reprint permission granted with full attribution.


  1. Mark Adams

    Interesting thoughts. I have t add.

    First: I ask people to think how a new competitor could use our completive advantage against us. This thinking how our current commitments and investments “lock us in” such that our response will difficult for as well the new competition is able to add customer appreciating value that our approaches can’t.

    Second: asking us how we could learn to cannibalize our most profitable products and services and achieve a whole new level of competitive strength.

  2. Mark Avery

    Game changing insights often emerge through scenario planning processes. Even if the scenarios themselves often boil down to most likely/ best case/worst case, teh thinking that is necessary to generate them is an excellent source of game-changing ideas. Another way to do this is to apply a PESTLE analysis to one’s environment (Political, Economic, Social, Technical, Legal, Environmental) –look for the factors that create and maintain one’s environment in each domain. Identifying patterns of interaction between domains and rethink how things could work. This often generates these ‘game changing’ ideas. Game changing ideas create new categories, and to do that, one needs to be able to zoom out.


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