Don’t Seek Disruptive Innovation

Everyone these days seems to be seeking disruptive innovation. It is true, most of the stellar success stories we often hear about are disruptive – Uber, airbnb and all their cousins in the sharing economy to name a few.

But what does disruptive actually mean? Isn’t it just a polite way of saying “a big leap forward”? The phrase was coined by Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor. Originally he used the term “disruptive” to refer to products which changed a market and value network. That often involves a step-change in the product (a “transformational” innovation), but that is not always the case.

To give you an example, Apple’s App Store is a disruptive innovation. It completely changed the way consumers buy software. Arguably the iPhone is merely a transformational innovation – people still purchase their phones just like they used to.

Transformational innovation is not a defective form of disruptive innovation. It just means that the innovation is centred around product and not the business model (how you make money from it). Start with a great product, and if that requires a revolutionary business model then you definitely have your work cut out for you. If it’s just a great product using an existing business model, at least you’ll be able to spend slightly less effort articulating your vision for a future marketplace.

The other issue with the word disruptive is its negative connotation. As Melanie Rayment points out, wicked problems aren’t really wicked. Without knowing the history of that phrase, people easily misinterpret the intended meaning of “wicked”. The word “disruptive” also has a specific meaning, and unless you’re used to dealing with abstract economic theories about markets, it’s not particularly useful. In fact, it’s tempting to assume a product is “disruptive” simply because a competitor will need to revise their sales projections.

As a consumer, do you really want to buy anything describing itself as “disruptive”? Lots of things you just want to continue like they always were – stability is great. Disruption to your phone, internet, water or electricity service is never a good thing.

In today’s customer-centric world, even if your new product is truly disruptive to the marketplace, you might want to describe it to your customers as the least disruptive thing they’ll buy all year!