Innovation may be making a return to the spotlight, but that’s not to say it was ever just an accessory, or that it wasn’t a naturally-occurring process. Companies practice innovation even without realizing it, simply by virtue of trying to stay afloat, or gain competitive advantage.

But as much as the word acts as a catch-all for everything from ideation to streamlining, there are some subtle but important nuances to be found in when innovation takes place, for what purpose, and how it’s done.

The Ripple Effect

When we go to make an old product or service better, we have to innovate. It doesn’t necessarily seem like that’s what we’re doing, and it’s a common misconception that innovation only really applies to brand new ideas. But optimization and streamlining still require some level of out-of-the-box thinking, especially when it comes to changing really foundational things, like your organizational structure or a product with a long history of standard components.

Yet, innovating in the short-term doesn’t only affect immediate outcomes; it can have far-reaching results that influence where your company or product stands in the marketplace, its sustainability in the fluctuating economy, and its potential in untapped territories and regions. When looking at innovation as a long-term prospect, it can be easier to see the whole picture — end goals, total product offerings, budget limits — than the incremental steps necessary to get there. Unfortunately, problems arise when innovation strategies aren’t built to support both short and long-term innovation, causing companies to either push for short bursts of success now at the expense of future opportunities, or forego small-scale stuff to make bigger (but less stable) leaps.

Making Innovation Last

The solution to disparate innovation timing is pretty obvious, right? If you want to make your innovation strategy sustainable, you have to think of the future alongside the present. It’s a lot like being a chef in a restaurant — buy enough produce to get through the projected week’s customers, but be willing to adjust the nightly menu if there’s a tomato recall. In other words, maintain the balance.

One intelligent way of doing this is through an ambidextrous organizational setup, a type of innovation management process geared towards mapping out simultaneous but distinct innovation types and purposes. More on that later, but the basic idea is that, by laying out innovation in terms of incremental vs. radical, identifying the risks and rewards of each, and then using quantifiable parameters, you’ll be able to more accurately determine where hedging your bets will pay off.

At the end of the day, it boils down to this: companies need to make choices about innovation, stick to them, and design strategies to support them, because innovation isn’t just a game of chance.