What Is a Disruptive Innovation?

October 3, 2013

The term “disruptive innovation” is often misunderstood. I frequently describe micro four-thirds (MFT) and mirror-less technologies as disruptive. Every time I write an article describing these developments as disruptive, I get many nasty responses telling me that these formats are not disruptive to the industry, the improvements are minor (or nonexistent), and I don’t know what I’m talking about, I am a moron, etc.  To clear up any confusion about the term disruptive innovation, I will define the term for those that are not familiar with the academic and mass market writings in this research stream.

The term disruptive innovation became popularized by Clayton Christensen and colleagues through a series of academic articles and popular books first published in the 1990s. The most well-known of these is probably Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma.

Christensen, et al., define a disruptive innovation as an innovation that has lower performance than the current market leaders (at least initially), but has other performance factors that appeal to a different set of customers from those traditionally considered the “best customers” of the industry. For example, in the case of MFT or mirrorless, some customers are more price sensitive (compared to full-frame customers), or the customers may value smaller size and lower weight more highly than full-frame customers. Clearly, these alternative customers value a different set of attributes from the highest margin customers in the industry.

Disruptive innovations may or may not be radical innovations that redefine a technology. Typically disruptive innovations are seen as minor by established firms in an industry. These innovations reshape an industry slowly as the performance attributes of the technology improve and meet the needs of a growing share of the customer base. At first, the technology lags the industry leader in significant measures and only appeals to a small group of customers. Eventually the technology improves so that it meets the need of a larger share of the market.

Christensen describes the term this way in his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma:

Generally, disruptive technologies underperform established products in mainstream markets. But they have other features that a few fringe (and generally new) customers value. Products based on disruptive technologies are typically cheaper, simpler, smaller, and frequently, more convenient to use.

Hopefully, this short article describes adequately what I mean by the term disruptive innovation. I highly recommend any of Christensen’s books or articles if you want to explore this concept further.

Recommended Reading

The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen

The Innovator’s Solution by Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor

The Innovator’s DNA by Clayton Christensen, Jeff Dyer, and Hal Gregersen

Recommended Viewing

Clayton Christensen Lecture on YouTube (10 minutes)

Clayton Christensen Clarendon Lecture at Oxford (1 hour)

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  1. Pingback: What Nikon Doesn’t Understand About Mirrorless (and DX) Customers | Chasing Light Photography Blog

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