What is a breakthrough product?

I talk a lot about how innovation work is different if you are developing an incremental innovation vs a truly breakthrough product.  As you can expect, the question then comes up about how a breakthrough product should be defined.  This is a great question, and I’ve done a lot of thinking about it.  What’s interesting is that the definition can change if you take an internal company perspective, vs a market perspective, so I’ll try to reconcile why these differences may exist. 


From a market oriented perspective, a true breakthrough is a product (or service, or other type of offering) that enables people to access benefits that would otherwise be out of reach.  Sometimes we see this happen through products that have been incrementally improved to the point that the originally intended benefits are finally accessible to the intended consumers.  Other times, this happens when a technology or category is created that makes all existing alternatives obsolete.


This is why it can be confusing to define a breakthrough from an internal company perspective.  Inside a company, an incremental improvement may not be seen as a breakthrough innovation, even though it may be the point at which the market is finally disrupted.  This is why I choose to take the market perspective, since an innovation is ultimately judged by its impact on the market.  A breakthrough disrupts a market dynamic.  It doesn’t really matter how you get there, but it does matter that you understand your market well enough to identify the dynamics you want to disrupt, and intentionally develop products that will achieve that goal.