Disruptive innovation has become a very popular notion about competition and organizational change. Since Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen’s 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma, business leaders (and, more recently, educators) have been trying to anticipate disruptive innovation in their industries and encourage disruptive innovation in their companies.
Drake Bennett in an article for BusinessWeek titled “The Innovator's New Clothes: Is Disruption a Failed Model?” describes the concept in this way:
[Disruptive innovation] …holds that established, market-dominating companies are prone to being felled by upstarts precisely because they are established and market-dominating—cosseted by their dominance, they are loath to embrace new technologies and practices that would threaten their business model.
For Silicon Valley startups eager to unleash their innovative abilities on the world, the key is to find a market ripe for disruption and then be the agent of that disruption. For companies that don’t want to go the way of Pan Am and Wang Laboratories, the only way to avoid being disrupted is to disrupt oneself. Which is why disruptiveness—a quality once associated with children who couldn’t control themselves in school—has become the measuring stick of promising business ideas.
Harvard historian Jill Lepore has challenged the validity of disruptive innovation as an explanation of change. She writes in The New Yorker:
Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.
Bennett then did a follow-up interview of Christensen in which the professor refutes Lepore's criticism and stands by his research.
While I appreciate the thought-provoking nature of Christensen’s work, I also value Lepore’s perspective. I think both are right.
Disruptive innovation has always been part of commerce, health care, and education (e.g., introduction of printing press, universal education, psychotropic drugs). The difference now is that computer technology has dramatically increased the pace and reduced the cost of innovation. Everything we do and make will eventually be replaced by a new way of doing things (not necessarily better) and a new product (not necessarily better).
Rather than trying to predict disruptive innovation or create a department for disruptive innovation, executives and employees need to be continually learning so that they can adapt to change quickly, whether that change is external or internal. For example, they need to learn how to know what’s happening in the marketplace (i.e., What is the emerging competition?), they need to learn how to rapidly develop new, creative, customer-friendly products and services, they need to learn how to work cross-functionally and in teams.
It’s not a question of whether or not an organization will face disruptive innovation but rather when it occurs, will that organization have the knowledge, skills, and capability to shape the situation to its advantage.