Disruptive innovation

A disruptive innovation is an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually goes on to disrupt an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology.

disruptive-innovation

What Is Disruptive Innovation? Disruptive Innovation In A Nutshell

Disruptive innovation as a term was first described by Clayton M. Christensen, an American academic and business consultant whom The Economist called “the most influential management thinker of his time.” Disruptive innovation describes the process by which a product or service takes hold at the bottom of a market and eventually displaces established competitors, products, firms, or alliances.

Understanding disruptive innovation

Christensen first introduced the theory behind disruptive innovation in his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma and a follow-up entitled The Innovator’s Solution.

In the books, he posited that there were two types of technologies businesses dealt with.

Sustainable technologies enabled a business to improve its performance over a predictable timeframe and remain competitive.

Disruptive technologies, on the other hand, were less predictable and potentially more devastating to industry competitiveness. 

Disruptive innovation typically occurs when a product or service establishes itself at the bottom of a market.

This process is facilitated by the product being less expensive and thus more accessible than competitor products, which tend to be expensive, sophisticated, and accessible to relatively few consumers. 

It’s important to note that disruptive innovations are not breakthrough technologies that turn good products into great products.

Instead, they are simply innovations that make products or services more accessible and affordable to a larger percentage of the population.

Why does disruptive innovation occur?

Disruptive innovation occurs because most companies tend to innovate faster than their customers’ needs evolve.

This causes a situation where the end product or service is too sophisticated, complex, or expensive for the majority of consumers in a target audience.

So why do companies pursue innovation?

Historically, innovation has been associated with success as it helps the business corner the higher end of the market with the most profitable products.

But this strategy leaves room at the bottom end of the market for a disruptive innovator to enter and potentially become a threat.

Disruptive innovators tend to operate in markets characterized by lower gross margins, smaller target markets, and simpler products and services.

These traits make the bottom end of the market unprofitable and undesirable for firms that have already developed sustaining innovations.

What are the ingredients for disruptive innovation?

In the previous section, we talked about the conditions necessary for a new company to enter the bottom end of the market. 

Let’s now explain how this new company can become disruptive by looking at the required ingredients:

Enabling technology

Or technology that can significantly change or improve the way consumers do things.

The speed with which disruptive innovation can occur is a function of how quickly enabling technology is developed and improved upon for mass uptake.

Having said that, it should be noted that the speed of disruption is not the sole determinant of success.

Coherent value network

For disruptive innovation to occur, the network of suppliers, distributors, and partners must also benefit from the enabling technology.

It is not enough for consumers alone to benefit.

Innovative business model

business-model-innovation
Business model innovation is about increasing the success of an organization with existing products and technologies by crafting a compelling value proposition able to propel a new business model to scale up customers and create a lasting competitive advantage. And it all starts by mastering the key customers.

This is simply a business model that targets consumers at the bottom end of the market with innovative products.

Since the model is characterized by low-profit margins and simpler product design, the solutions should be easy to use and economical to produce. 

Examples of disruptive innovation

There are countless examples of disruptive innovation in business. In this section, we’ll take a look at some of the more interesting case studies.

Academia

Encyclopedia Britannica was a market leader in encyclopedias and had been printed for 244 years until the last copy was released in 2012. 

Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.’s publisher had cornered the high end of the market, with each edition selling for over $1000.

However, print encyclopedias were quickly usurped by free, digital versions such as Wikipedia.

Wikipedia offered an encyclopedia of unlimited size that was portable and updated constantly.

how-does-wikipedia-make-money
Wikipedia is sustained by the Wikimedia Foundation, which is supported mostly by donations and contributions, which in 2021 amounted to over $153 million. Wikipedia is among the most popular websites on earth, and it is, as of these days, an open, non-profit project, on which other twelve projects have been developed.

With its vast bulk and update cycles lasting more than a year, Encyclopedia Britannica was ultimately displaced by a disruptive innovator.

Media entertainment

At its peak, video and game rental company Blockbuster operated more than 9,000 stores and employed approximately 84,300 people.

what-happened-to-blockbuster
Blockbuster was an American movie and video game rental chain. The company went from industry leader to filing for bankruptcy with $1 billion in debt in less than a decade. Blockbuster relied on late fees to drive a high proportion of revenue. This strategy proved uncompetitive after Netflix offered fee-free movie rentals by mail. Blockbuster lost significant market share to Netflix in the ensuing years and experienced a decline in profit after abolishing late fees in an attempt to remain competitive. Blockbuster’s demise is mostly due to an inability to innovate. Although passing on the offer to purchase Netflix is noteworthy, the company failed because of a myopic focus on its outdated rental franchise model.

Though video and game rentals were relatively cheap, increasing data speeds and bandwidth instituted a general shift toward video streaming. 

Blockbuster was displaced by smaller players such as Netflix, who offered a cheaper and more convenient alternative.

Today, the company owns the rights to more than 13,000 titles, with prices starting at a mere $8.99/month.

Photography

Film companies such as Kodak enjoyed market dominance in the photography industry for decades.

what-happened-to-kodak
Kodak is an American photography product and service company founded in 1892 by George Eastman and Henry A. Strong. After dominating the photographic film industry for decades, the company filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Kodak was not ignorant of digital camera technology. But it did fail at various stages to commit to digital products entirely despite overwhelming evidence that the technology would prove profitable. Kodak was also the victim of the changing retail landscape and consumer sentiment toward foreign products in the United States. Blind in its devotion to printing, it also missed an opportunity to create a Facebook-style photo-sharing website three years before Facebook itself was conceived.

The company’s photographic film products were synonymous with quality and professionalism, but Kodak was eventually displaced by digital camera manufacturers such as Canon, Sony, Pentax, and Nikon. 

Digital photography disrupted film photography because it was more convenient and required less expertise to develop photographs.

Though digital cameras were relatively expensive when they first appeared, the number of digital photographs a consumer could take was not limited by the cost or restrictiveness of film.

Transportation

To date, Concorde is the only supersonic jet that has entered into commercial production.

High operating costs and limited seat capacity meant Concorde tickets were mostly purchased by the wealthy or super-wealthy.

what-happened-to-concorde
Concorde was a supersonic passenger airliner jointly developed and manufactured by Sud Aviation and the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC). After more than three decades in the sky, the entire fleet was retired in 2003. Concorde was not a commercially viable aircraft. The presence of a sonic boom limited its routes to those occurring over the open ocean. It was also heavy on fuel which made Air France and British Airways vulnerable to price hikes. Concorde’s fate was sealed by a fatal crash in 2000 and the September 11 terrorist attacks the following year. A collapse in the first-class market and consumer avoidance of air travel exposed the aircraft’s lack of commercial viability.

Concorde services ended in 2003 due to high operating costs and a high-profile accident.

However, the rising affordability of small, private jets was also a contributing factor.

Though these jets did not travel at supersonic speed, their quieter operation meant they could fly routes off-limits to the extremely loud Concorde. 

Many private jet owners also enjoyed flying between airports without having to move through the terminal with hundreds of commercial passengers.

Key takeaways

  • Disruptive innovation describes the process by which a product or service takes hold at the bottom of a market and eventually displaces established competitors, products, firms, or alliances. The term was popularised by American academic and business consultant Clayton M. Christensen.
  • Disruptive innovation occurs since most companies tend to innovate faster than their customers’ needs evolve. Innovation typically favors products or services that are too sophisticated, complex, or expensive for the target audience.
  • For a market entrant to become a disruptive innovator, there are three crucial ingredients. Technology with the capacity to significantly improve the way consumers do things must first exist. This technology must also benefit suppliers and contractors. Lastly, there must also be a business model that targets consumers at the bottom end of the market with innovative products.

What are the four points to disruptive innovation?

The four points of disruptive innovation are:

Read Next: Business Model Innovation, Business Models.

Related Innovation Frameworks

Business Engineering

business-engineering-manifesto

Business Model Innovation

business-model-innovation
Business model innovation is about increasing the success of an organization with existing products and technologies by crafting a compelling value proposition able to propel a new business model to scale up customers and create a lasting competitive advantage. And it all starts by mastering the key customers.

Innovation Theory

innovation-theory
The innovation loop is a methodology/framework derived from the Bell Labs, which produced innovation at scale throughout the 20th century. They learned how to leverage a hybrid innovation management model based on science, invention, engineering, and manufacturing at scale. By leveraging individual genius, creativity, and small/large groups.

Types of Innovation

types-of-innovation
According to how well defined is the problem and how well defined the domain, we have four main types of innovations: basic research (problem and domain or not well defined); breakthrough innovation (domain is not well defined, the problem is well defined); sustaining innovation (both problem and domain are well defined); and disruptive innovation (domain is well defined, the problem is not well defined).

Continuous Innovation

continuous-innovation
That is a process that requires a continuous feedback loop to develop a valuable product and build a viable business model. Continuous innovation is a mindset where products and services are designed and delivered to tune them around the customers’ problem and not the technical solution of its founders.

Disruptive Innovation

disruptive-innovation
Disruptive innovation as a term was first described by Clayton M. Christensen, an American academic and business consultant whom The Economist called “the most influential management thinker of his time.” Disruptive innovation describes the process by which a product or service takes hold at the bottom of a market and eventually displaces established competitors, products, firms, or alliances.

Business Competition

business-competition
In a business world driven by technology and digitalization, competition is much more fluid, as innovation becomes a bottom-up approach that can come from anywhere. Thus, making it much harder to define the boundaries of existing markets. Therefore, a proper business competition analysis looks at customer, technology, distribution, and financial model overlaps. While at the same time looking at future potential intersections among industries that in the short-term seem unrelated.

Technological Modeling

technological-modeling
Technological modeling is a discipline to provide the basis for companies to sustain innovation, thus developing incremental products. While also looking at breakthrough innovative products that can pave the way for long-term success. In a sort of Barbell Strategy, technological modeling suggests having a two-sided approach, on the one hand, to keep sustaining continuous innovation as a core part of the business model. On the other hand, it places bets on future developments that have the potential to break through and take a leap forward.

Diffusion of Innovation

diffusion-of-innovation
Sociologist E.M Rogers developed the Diffusion of Innovation Theory in 1962 with the premise that with enough time, tech products are adopted by wider society as a whole. People adopting those technologies are divided according to their psychologic profiles in five groups: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.

Frugal Innovation

frugal-innovation
In the TED talk entitled “creative problem-solving in the face of extreme limits” Navi Radjou defined frugal innovation as “the ability to create more economic and social value using fewer resources. Frugal innovation is not about making do; it’s about making things better.” Indian people call it Jugaad, a Hindi word that means finding inexpensive solutions based on existing scarce resources to solve problems smartly.

Constructive Disruption

constructive-disruption
A consumer brand company like Procter & Gamble (P&G) defines “Constructive Disruption” as: a willingness to change, adapt, and create new trends and technologies that will shape our industry for the future. According to P&G, it moves around four pillars: lean innovation, brand building, supply chain, and digitalization & data analytics.

Growth Matrix

growth-strategies
In the FourWeekMBA growth matrix, you can apply growth for existing customers by tackling the same problems (gain mode). Or by tackling existing problems, for new customers (expand mode). Or by tackling new problems for existing customers (extend mode). Or perhaps by tackling whole new problems for new customers (reinvent mode).

Innovation Funnel

innovation-funnel
An innovation funnel is a tool or process ensuring only the best ideas are executed. In a metaphorical sense, the funnel screens innovative ideas for viability so that only the best products, processes, or business models are launched to the market. An innovation funnel provides a framework for the screening and testing of innovative ideas for viability.

Idea Generation

idea-generation

Design Thinking

design-thinking
Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO, defined design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” Therefore, desirability, feasibility, and viability are balanced to solve critical problems.
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