Disruptive Innovation May Not Be What You Think It Is

At KnowThis.com, we are big supporters of innovation in marketing. We have noted many times how innovation has positively and negatively impacted a variety of industries including grocery stores, textbook publishing, print media and toy companies. Innovation can affect all marketing areas though innovation in product development tends to attract the most attention from customers, the media, financial backers and others.

As we note in our Managing Products tutorial, when it comes to product development, innovation can fall into three categories: 1) an idea that improves upon an existing idea; 2) an idea that is new for the marketer but not new to the industry; or 3) a radically new idea that has not previously been introduced to the market. Of the three categories, the most compelling are ideas that are viewed as radically different. These ideas can transform companies and industries in ways that other innovative ideas cannot. For example, Uber and Lyft have transformed the people transportation market with their unique ride-sharing services.

When marketers sit around and discuss radical innovation, they seek an idea that is so different that it will ?disrupt? their industry. The idea of disruptive innovation first emerged in 1995 when Harvard professors Joseph Bower and Clayton Christensen first wrote about it in the Harvard Business Review. Christensen has since that time become the leading guru of disruptive innovation including authoring many books and articles, and also regularly speaking on the subject.

Now, 20 years since the first article, Christensen returns as co-author of a new Harvard Business Review piece. The main point of this writing is that what many believe to be disruptive innovations are not what he had in mind when he coined the term. And as a key example in the article Christensen points to Uber. By Christensen?s definition, while Uber is innovative it does not meet the test for being disruptive. Christensen reasons that Uber is neither creating a new market nor is it solving a need of underserved customers within an existing market. According to Christensen, one of these has to happen for an innovation to be considered disruptive.

Of course, whether or not Uber is labeled as a disruptive innovation does not mean that much, and certainly does not diminish the impact of their business model. Rather, the takeaway from this story is for marketers to understand the theory behind disruptive innovation.? Once they have a good handle on the theory, they may suddenly see marketing opportunities they did not see before.