Do you have what it takes to be disruptive?

11th May 2016

Do you have what it takes to be disruptive?

The idea of ‘disruptive innovation’ has been around for quite a while, but contrary to what you might think, it has got nothing to do with your personal behaviour or even attention and headline grabbing technologies like ‘flying motorbikes’.

According to Clayton Christensen, who coined the term, disruptive innovation is far more subtle and describes products that come in under the radar, at the bottom of the market and slowly, but relentlessly move upwards until they displace their established competitors. 

So, what is a good example of a disruptive innovation and what do you need to do to create one?

Mobile phones are a good place to start. Those of us who remember the heavy brick-like phones of the late 80s (and even heavier batteries) would have given them as much chance of taking over from land lines as those of Leicester City winning the UK Premiership. With poor reception, almost no networks, heavy and bulky packaging and terrible battery life, the original mobiles only had one advantage – portability. The conventional telephony market largely ignored possible competition from mobiles while they steadily got better at what they were bad at and enhanced their primary benefit.

Going further back, the same was true for transistor radios, which initially had poor reception, terrible audio quality and battery life, but were portable. It wasn’t all that long before static wooden radio cabinets were soon a thing of the past. Similar things are now happening to stereo systems with the advent of high quality speakers linked wirelessly to phones and tablets.

From a product development perspective, disruptive innovation is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it suggests that conventional market research is not always the best way to identify new opportunities. For example, if you ask your customers for suggestions on ways to improve your product, they will probably request a better version of what you make now, not a whole new answer to the basic problem your product is designed to solve. My point is, attempts to improve the CD player would never had led to the iPod!

This brings me to my second point, which is that disruptive innovations often start small and look inferior to their established competitors. It requires vision and courage on the part of the innovator or entrepreneur, but the core issue is what the innovation can do that the competition cannot. In the case of the radios and phones it was portability, which was impossible for the established products. Provided that the weaknesses of the ‘disruptor’ can be addressed (cost, size, quality, etc) the unique abilities of the new technology will mean that it will almost certainly displace the old one.

So, to be a ‘disruptive innovator’ you don’t need to tick every box at the outset. Just make sure you have at least one capability or feature that would knock the current technology of its pedestal – and be sure that you can fix all the things that make it look like a poor alternative at the moment.


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