Snakes and Ladders: Navigating innovation challenges

Featured article: Snakes and Ladders: Navigating innovation challenges

By Gaia and Andrew Grant

Adapted excerpt from The Innovation Race book, and originally published in a similar format as an article online by B&T

Innovation has been studied in detail since the 1930s, when it was first connected to business by economist and political scientist Joseph Schumpeter.

Schumpeter was quite a character. He aimed to become the greatest economist in the world (along with the best horseman in all of Austria and the greatest lover in all of Vienna, and he is reported to have said that he successfully achieved two of those goals – although never saying which two!). He certainly became one of the most influential economists of the 21st century, and popularised the concept of ‘creative destruction’ to identify the massive impact innovation can have on society.

This expression beautifully captures the paradox of innovation being about destroying the old while simultaneously building something new. Yet how do you balance this paradox successfully to ensure long term sustainability and survival?

The realities of the ‘innovation race’

One thing that has become apparent over those years of study is that there seems to be a treadmill when it comes to technological innovation with an automatic speed-up setting that can’t be changed. And few companies are able to keep up. Few can survive the ‘disruptive innovation’ storm that continues to threaten contemporary businesses.

Only one out of the top five tech companies in 1995, companies that were established at the time of the introduction of the internet, remain in the technological innovation race today. What’s more, 14 of the world’s 15 most valuable technology brands have disappeared during the two decades since 1995. With the notable exception of Apple, all have been rendered obsolete by more agile competitors.

Many of the top companies researched in Tom Peters’ and Robert H. Waterman’s book In Search of Excellence (1982) and in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great (2001) have not lasted the distance. Good companies can fail easily when confronted by market and technological change — even the kinds of companies that are known for their ability to innovate and execute well.

Survival at all costs?

Survival in the competitive technological innovation race, it has been found, often depends on radical breakthrough innovations rather than slow evolutionary adaptations. And these disruptive innovations are changing the game.

Throughout history countless technological transitions have dramatically impacted rates of development and established new benchmarks. Think about the switch from horse and buggy to motorcar, from typewriter to computer, from snail mail to email.

Disruptive and breakthrough innovations have emerged as a way of dealing with gaps, yet these forms of rapid innovation can be risky. Sometimes rapid breakthrough innovations are like a game of snakes and ladders: when you land in the wrong place you can find yourself sliding back to square one, having to start all over again.

Discover a significant new innovation, on the other hand, and you can leap ahead of the competition and scale a fast-track ladder to the top in one swift move. This race generates both great opportunities and great risks, fast winners and losers.

Innovation for transformation

The challenge is that, just as we need to move beyond the slower but more sustainable incremental innovations that help us to survive, eventually we are going to have to go beyond the sometimes haphazard breakthrough and disruptive innovations that are helping us to get ahead in the game.

We need to progress to what we call transformational innovation: innovation that is fast enough to keep up with the rapid pace of change, yet is also meaningful and sustainable from a social, environmental and commercial perspective.

Graphic: Sustainability vs Pace change

Instead of being passive victims of threatening market forces it is now necessary to build organisations that are strong enough to weather the storms. Strong organisations will be built on a strong sense of purpose and clear values.

Here’s how:

  • build new ideas from a strong values foundation that people in the organisation can believe in and connect with – give everyone a sense of purpose

and at the same time

  • challenge outdated ways of thinking and doing things that might hold the organisation and individuals back from agile growth

By moving to this deeper level of innovation it should be possible to change a culture to change the game.


  1. Carroll, P. (2006). An Introduction to economics with emphasis on innovation. Melbourne, AUS: Thompson.
  2. Christensen, C. M. (1997). The innovator’s dilemma. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.
  3. Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap … and others don’t. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.
  4. Kim, E. (2015). It’s mind boggling how the most valuable internet companies have changed over the past 20 years. Business Insider. Retrieved from
  5. Meeker, M. (2015). Internet Trends 2015 – Code Conference. KPCB. Retrieved from
  6. Peters, T.J. & Waterman, R. H. Jr (1982). In search of excellence. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
  7. Śledzik K. (2013). Schumpeter’s view on innovation and entrepreneurship. In Stefan Hittmar (ed.), Management
    Trends in Theory and Practice, Faculty of Management Science and Informatics, University of Zilina & Institute of Management by University of Zilina.


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