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Sustaining Innovation 101 | The Story Of The Tortoise And The Hare in Long Game


Astrid Tran 19 December, 2023 8 min read

Sustaining innovation advantages and disadvantages
Sustaining Innovation vs. Disruptive Innovation

When discussing innovation, the image that often comes to mind is that of the sudden lightning bolt - the disruptive new product or technology that shakes up entire industries overnight. The rapid rise of companies like Uber and Airbnb has trained us to see innovation as fast-moving, dramatic, and game-changing.

However, this view overlooks a quieter yet equally important type of innovation: sustaining innovation. If disruptive innovation is the hare, moving rapidly and unpredictably, then sustaining innovation is the tortoise – slower and steadier, aiming to win the race in the long run. But it comes to another story as well. Whether disruptive innovation becomes sustaining innovation. Let's find the answer with this article.

What is an example of a sustaining innovation company?Apple
What are the factors of sustainable innovation?Environment, society, economy, and collaboration.
Overview of sustaining innovation.

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sustaining versus disruptive innovations
Different Types of Innovation | Image: ancanmarketing

What is Sustaining Innovation?

Sustaining innovation refers to incremental improvements made to existing products, services, and processes. Unlike disruptive innovations, which introduce completely new categories, sustaining innovations focus on evolving what already exists to make it better. Some key characteristics of this type of innovation include:

  • Improving product performance, design, or quality in ways that matter to customers
  • Adding new features and enhancements that increase value
  • Improving production systems, supply chains, or software to increase efficiency
  • Streamlining and evolving business processes

This also explains the difference between sustaining and disruptive innovation. While sustaining innovations do not make the pulses of industry insiders race in the same way as radical shifts like the iPhone or Netflix, they play an equally vital role in driving corporate success over time. Through gradual but meaningful improvements across their offerings, companies can continue meeting customer needs, fending off competitors, and growing their market share year after year.

Sustaining vs. Disruptive Innovation | Source: Harvard Business School Online


What are Sustaining Innovation Examples?

Here are the most breathtaking sustaining innovations in today's business.

#1. Apple

Take Tech giant Apple as an example of sustaining innovation. While the original iPhone in 2007 was a disruptive product that redefined the smartphone category, Apple’s subsequent iPhone models represent textbook examples of sustaining innovation.

example of sustaining innovation
Sustaining technologies examples - An example of sustaining innovation | Image: india

With each new generation, Apple makes measured performance improvements that offer clear value to users vs. previous versions. The iPhone camera gets upgrades to its megapixels, sensors, and aperture. The display quality improves with higher resolution Retina displays and OLED. Processing speeds get faster with next-gen A-series chips. Battery life is extended. New features like Touch ID fingerprint scanning and Face ID facial recognition add convenience.

These changes are not disruptive – rather, they are incremental enhancements made to the existing iPhone model. Yet each improvement makes the iPhone more useful, powerful, and attractive to consumers looking to upgrade their devices. Through this careful and consistently sustaining innovation, Apple has maintained tremendous loyalty among its customers. iOS users tend to stick with iPhones when it comes time for their next purchase because each new model offers tangible benefits over the previous version.

This innovation machine has also allowed Apple to firmly dominate the premium smartphone market despite fierce competition from the likes of Samsung. Even the buzz around flashy new Android phones has not hampered iPhone sales, thanks to Apple’s stellar example of sustaining innovation.

#2: Toyota Camry

In the auto industry, Toyota’s sustained success with its Camry model also offers an excellent real-world example of sustaining innovation. While not the flashiest passenger car on the market, the Camry has been America’s best-selling car for 19 of the past 20 years.

sustaining innovation in auto indistru
An example of sustaining innovation

How does it pull this off year after year? Through incremental improvements to performance, safety, comfort, fuel efficiency, and design made to each new model. For instance, recent Camry generations added:

  • More responsive steering and handling for better drive quality
  • New exterior styling and interior materials for an upscale look and feel
  • Enhanced touchscreen displays and technology integration
  • Expanded safety features like collision warning and lane departure alerts

Much like the iPhone, these changes represent sustaining innovations that make an existing product better. Toyota has leveraged this strategy to keep the Camry desirable to car buyers looking for a reliable family sedan. The company actively listens to customer feedback to understand evolving needs and preferences. It then implements targeted improvements tailored to those needs. This market responsiveness, paired with outstanding quality, has allowed the Camry to remain numero uno against rivals.

#3: Dyson Vacuums

Another leading example of sustaining innovation comes from appliance company Dyson and its continually improving vacuums. Dyson built its brand on genuine disruptive innovation – its first cyclonic vacuum completely changed home cleaning with its bagless technology.

sustaining innovation product examples
Dyson is one of the best examples of sustaining innovation | Sustaining innovation product examples | Image: Future

But since then, Dyson has focused on sustaining to make its vacuums even more effective. Its engineers have introduced upgraded features across successive models, including:

  • Improved cyclonic and HEPA filtration for better dirt/debris capture
  • Re-engineered brush rolls to remove pet hair more easily
  • Swivel steering and low profile designs for increased maneuverability
  • Extended run times from upgraded motors and battery packs
  • App connectivity and LCD interfaces to track performance

Like our other examples, none of these represent revolutionary shifts. But together, they have allowed Dyson to additively improve its core vacuum products, leading to an enhanced user experience. This strategy has been a major driver in Dyson's capturing significant market share in the premium vacuum segment, and Dyson has become a bright example of sustaining technology.

What is a sustaining innovation? Image: Freepik

Sustaining Innovation Fuels Long-Term Success

Sustaining innovations compound over time – each incremental improvement builds on the next. Much like the tortoise, sustaining innovations allow companies to thrive in the long run by:

  • Retaining and growing their customer base through upgrades and enhanced value
  • Increasing brand loyalty by consistently delivering on customer needs
  • Fending off competitors also looking to improve their offerings
  • Taking advantage of margins on existing products before disruption occurs
  • Lowering risk compared to betting on major disruptive shifts that may fail

In today’s fast-paced economy, it is easy to fall into the trap of fixating on disruptive innovation. However, this type of innovation has always played an equally vital role in driving corporate success nowadays. Leaders must find the right balance – disrupt occasionally to shift competitive landscapes while sustaining constantly to build steady growth in existing markets.


Companies like Apple, Toyota, and Dyson are some sustainable innovation examples that show how thoughtful and customer-centric allows businesses to prosper over decades rather than mere years. By taking the attitude of the tortoise, making progress inch-by-inch and year-by-year, sustaining innovation provides a path to long-term market dominance.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of a disruptive innovation and sustaining innovation?

Disruptive innovations are breakthrough products or services that create entirely new markets and value networks. Examples of disruptive innovations include the iPhone, Uber, Netflix, and e-commerce. Sustaining innovations are incremental improvements to existing products and processes. Some examples of sustaining innovations include new iPhone models with better cameras and displays, Toyota making its Camry more efficient over time, and Dyson improving its vacuums with better filtration.

What are the 4 types of innovation with examples?

The four main types of innovation are:
(1). Disruptive innovation: Netflix, Uber, Google, and Airbnb.
(2). Sustaining innovation: Smartphone market, Car market, and
(3). Incremental innovation: Laptop, New iPhone models, and Google Workspace
(4). Radical innovation: Blockchain, Amazon, and Airbnb.

What kind of innovation is Netflix?

Netflix utilized a disruptive innovation strategy in the home entertainment industry. Its on-demand video streaming over the internet completely changed how people access and consume video content, disrupting traditional rental and cable TV models. This opened up a new market and value network. Therefore, Netflix is an example of a disruptive innovation.

What are sustaining and disruptive innovations?

Sustaining versus disruptive innovation? Sustaining innovations focus on incremental improvements to existing products and services, while disruptive innovations introduce completely new products or business models that displace earlier technologies or ways of doing things. Sustaining innovations allow companies to retain existing customers and market share, while disruptive innovations reshape entire industries.

Ref: Harvard Business School Online | Voltage Control