The term disruption comes up constantly in the world of innovation but often in the wrong context. Most people think of it as a big, breakthrough technology that will become the next big thing. Most of the time it isn’t that at all. It usually starts out as something very unremarkable but has the ability to unseat market leaders over time. It is because of its humble beginnings that a disruptive technology or business model is so dangerous. By the time you recognize them it is too late to respond. That is why it is also important to have a solid grasp of the concept.
The term was made famous by Clay Christensen in Innovator’s Dilemma and expanded by him and his colleagues in several works since. A disruptive innovation is most often cheaper and of lower functionality than incumbent products. They are aimed at the low end of the market who can’t afford the existing solution or don’t have the ability to use it. The market leaders don’t pay much attention to the product or the market segment since they are focussed on building increasingly better versions of the product sold to the high end of the market. But two things end up happening over time. The increasing features of the existing products begin to exceed the ability of the market to absorb them and the product becomes more expensive and complex to use. Secondly the disruptive product has improved over time so that it is now good enough for the mainstream market and usually at a lower cost. The disruptor often has a lower cost structure than the incumbents and can make profits at lower margins. It is almost impossible to companies used to high profit margins to lower their cost structure.
An established company with existing products aimed at existing customers could come up with a breakthrough on that product line. But that breakthrough is not disruptive. It is a sustaining innovation since its impact is to make the existing product better. Companies should be looking for ways to improve their key products keeping their most profitable customers happy. But they also need to set up a separate group with its own funding to find the disruptive opportunities. Those that don’t often find themselves being blind sided by true disruptive products or business models.