What makes a disruptive innovation?

I work as a Monitoring Officer for Innovate UK and had a meeting a while back with a client that wanted to disrupt an existing marketplace, but was not quite sure about exactly how to go about this.

This got me thinking about Clayton Christensen’s book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” which is where the phrase “disruptive technology” was first coined.  The book came out in 1997 and became an instant business classic and I read somewhere that is was the one book that Steve Job’s was utterly obsessed with.  Perhaps this had some bearing on Apple’s approach to innovation because Christensen later referred to Apple as “freaks”, which I can only assume was said as a kind reference, because of their record in innovation and the fact that as the incumbent in any new market they have created (iPod, iPhone, iPad) they have a sterling record of not being beaten by upstarts.

Anyway, Christensen highlighted several factors about disruptive innovation that it’s worth highlighting.  The first is the trajectory graph that shows an incumbent listening to customers making incremental gains in a market place.  Then, along comes an upstart with an offering which is aimed at a completely different audience using “redundant technology” i.e. low power and low ability.  Then as time progresses the redundant technology gets more and more powerful, allowing the upstart’s offering to broaden it’s appeal beyond the niche in which it launched.  This blindsides the incumbent because it appears to have come from another dimension (or market) and then its core audience starts shifting en-masse to the upstart’s offering, primarily because it’s cheaper.

However, this innovation must first target a meaningful problem to solve, otherwise it will never gain any market traction, and then it must enable the audience to do something more comfortably and affordably than before.

I read several meanings into “affordably”:

  • “I can do this cheaper than before”
  • “I can do this easier than before” – think as in affordances of design
  • “I can do this quicker than before” – it affords me more time.

Viewed from this perspective, innovations such as Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat etc. make more sense, and more specifically from a user-centered design perspective.  Listening to customers and running focus groups is all fine, but it does not lead to anything disruptive – all it does is add more data and increase the scope of confusion.  User Centered Design is all about catering to inarticulated needs that can only be understood through immersion in order to dig for “gems”.  The difficulty is that gems do not look like gems, so how do you find them?