Wait, You Mean “Disrupt” Actually Means Something?

In these days of million-dollar A rounds for crazy ideas and $9 billion web IPOs, the term “disrupt” gets thrown around a lot. An awful lot. Like every other word out of some people’s mouths.

But what do we mean when we say it? Usually we — all of us, myself included — mean something fuzzy when we throw that term around. Something that means loosely, “shakin’ things up, making big noises, and holy shit, causing a bomb to go off in the way things happen.” You know, disruptive.

So imagine my surprise when I started reading all of the great books by Clayton Christensen and friends, and discovered that they actually have a definition, and a theory, about what disruption is and how it works exactly.

It has been a really useful thing for me to think about as I plot moves (and I’m always plotting moves), so I thought I’d pass it along to readers here.

Christensen et al contend that there are two basic types of innovation: sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation. In the appendix to Seeing What’s Next they explain it like this:

(Our) research identified more than 100 innovations and classified them as either *sustaining* to firms, in that they allowed the firms to provide better and more profitable products to their customers, or *disruptive*, because they offered initially poorer performance along the dimension that existing customers cared the most about. The findings indicated that incumbent companies almost always ultimately master sustaining innovations but often are unable to cope with disruptive innovations.

There’s a lot to digest in that paragraph (which basically summarizes an entire previous book of theirs), but here are some of the key takeaway ideas:

– disruptive innovations are often worse in some way initially than the industry leader they are competing with

– it is that very worse-ness that makes them disruptive, because more established companies in the field don’t know how to attack a product that is worse (but also cheaper, or else better along some new vector that they aren’t considering). They often just turn away from it altogether, figuring it’s just a worse product and they should focus on making better (and more profitable) product.

– this lack of understanding on the part of established companies gives new startups the foothold they need to attack and take on the established co’s. Without that foothold, new companies are likely to be annihilated by their bigger competitors, who already have market share, and big budgets, and teams set up to innovate and improve on existing products.

So when thinking about innovation, it’s really about recognizing whether something is fundamentally a sustaining innovation (i.e. it makes current product better somehow), in which case it favors the status quo, or fundamentally a disruptive innovation (apparently worse, but cheaper and/or more appealing for other reasons) in which case it favors overturning the status quo.

If you’re idea is fundamentally sustaining, you’d better think twice before turning it into a startup. If your idea is fundamentally disruptive, then you’re on the right track for creating a startup.

I could go on all day about this (I want to!) but I have to get to my jobby-job as they say. If you want to read more and understand more about these excellent theories, you should pick up a copy of The Innovator’s Solution, which is one of the most valuable books I’ve ever read.

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