As you will undoubtedly have noticed, in the lexicon of modern management the term “disruptive” has become synonymous with radical innovation, sudden breakthroughs and technological revolutions rocking the very foundations of established industries. Examples of ‘disruptive’ technologies might include 3D printers, driverless cars or delivery by drone. But disruption actually has a more precise meaning, corresponding to a specific situation in the context of innovation management.
The notion of disruptive innovation was first introduced by the Harvard Business School professor and consultant Clayton Christensen in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, which led The Economist to call him “the most influential management thinker of his time.”
As per Christensen’s definition, disruption occurs when a new technology becomes dominant despite the fact that its performance is initially inferior to the performance of the technology it is replacing. A good example is the rise of digital photography at the expense of film. In the early days, digital photography was clearly inferior to the traditional method in terms of quality: the shots were blurry, the cameras were expensive and slow to use, and printing photos was difficult.
To begin with, the performance of a disruptive innovation is actually inferior to the performance of existing technologies
Something similar happened in computing, with personal computers supplanting mainframe computers virtually everywhere despite the fact that the latter offered much more power, security and speed.
To begin with, the performance of a disruptive innovation is actually inferior to the performance of existing technologies. It is this initial performance deficit that cements the originality of the disruptive technology, and which makes established competitors blind to the change that is afoot: this genuine disadvantage reinforces the reigning champions’ conservatism, allowing them to remain convinced of the superiority of their own technology. By the time they realise that the new technology is going to win out, it is usually too late.
Obviously enough, if a new technology immediately demonstrates its capacity to perform more effectively than existing technologies, then incumbents will not hesitate to adopt it. It is precisely because the new technology is initially less effective that competitors end up falling victim to their own complacency.
So if you want to be sure that you are using the term ‘disruptive’ correctly, consider whether or not the innovation in question actually performs less effectively than existing technologies. If not, then there is no real disruption.
And if you happen to be an established leader in your particular industrial sector, be very wary of innovations which seem like they will never catch on: you may be in for a surprise.
This was previously published in French by Xerfi Canal.
This post gives the views of its author, not the position of ESCP Business School.
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