Invent Like an Egyptian: Rosabeth Moss Kanter's Innovation Pyramid

Last Updated May 17, 2010 10:14 AM EDT

How do you think about creating new products and services in your company?

Are you a blockbuster organization, placing your bets on a few big bets with tremendous payback potential, like Apple? Or do you sow many smaller seeds, hoping a few might might break the surface and sprout, the strategy of the American TV broadcast networks? Maybe you practice kaizen, the process of gradual improvement perfected by the Japanese (and Google).

Innovation expert Rosabeth Moss Kanter, of Harvard Business School, believes the modern organization must do all three. And she suggests you think about innovation as a pyramid, with the most bets at the bottom and fewer and fewer bets as you move to the top. Here is the structure:

  • Wide Base. At the base of the pyramid are sprinkled many small ideas, generated from anywhere inside or outside the company. "Continuous improvements and incremental innovations can be implemented immediately," Kanter writes. "Early-stage ideas with bigger potential can be elaborated upon with minimal time or funding."
  • Middle. Here is where new ideas are developed. "It contains a portfolio of projects, prototypes, and ventures with growth promise. These initiatives have their own identity and space for development and testing."
  • At the Top. These bets have the most breakthrough potential and get priority resources from management. "Top leaders' clarity about these bets should guide the types of ideas that start out at the base without constraining creativity."
Ideas can move in, up, or across the pyramid by design or through self-organizing teams, she says. Most important is to understand that incremental and breakthrough innovations go together. "Companies need all the blocks of the pyramid."

Read Kanter's blog for more details on the innovation pyramid.

The innovation pyramid presents an excellent picture for the mind of how new ideas and services can be generated and promoted within a company. How do you conceptualize innovation in your own company?

(Pyramid image by sierragoddess, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.