Yellow taxis Since it was introduced to the wider business world by Clayton Christensen 20 years ago in “The Innovator’s Dilemma” the idea of ‘disruptive innovation’and ‘disruptive technologies’ has spread around the world.

The insight that Christensen and his colleagues had was that new technologies enabled new entrants to challenge incumbents by either entering low-end niches that the incumbents have ignored, or by addressing a new segment. This idea has escaped into the wild and rapidly mutated. Any successful innovation is now likely to be labelled disruptive, and a quick search on “how to create disruptive innovation” turned up over 2.7 million items.

Entire consultancies have developed to help companies ‘disrupt’ markets and competitors. Stern instructions are issued and ambitious statements made:

  • disrupt or be disrupted!
  • our goal is not to bring incremental change, but to disrupt the entire sector
  • anyone can copy small-scale innovation, but if you want sustained competitive advantage you have to be disruptive
  • winners disrupt existing markets

It leaves businesses with the idea that there is no choice. If that is what we have have to do, then that is what we have to do if we are going to succeed!

So far has the concept drifted that Christensen and colleagues wrote a Harvard Business Review article in December 2015, “What is Disruptive Innovation?”, in an attempt to reclaim a useful idea that was in danger of being diluted to the point of losing all meaning. One of the examples they use is to argue that Uber is not a disruptive innovation. Successful yes, but not disruptive.

I didn’t see that coming!

My worry is not in the specific details of what does, and does not, qualify as disruptive innovation. It is in the widely held belief that you can deliberately create disruptive innovation by identifying disruptive technologies, predicting where they will be successful, and driving them into the right markets. I think we can identify disruptive innovation with hindsight, but we cannot predict it; it is emergent.

“we can identify disruptive innovation with hindsight, but we cannot predict it; it is emergent”

This thought came to me when I was visiting a contract research and technology organisation. They proudly showed me how they were using internet of things, sensors and robotics to create new solutions for clients in agriculture. It was good stuff, but the applications they were developing were slightly better, faster, possibly cheaper, ways of tackling well known problems that already had solutions.

The technologies clearly had the potential to disrupt, because they allow us to think about problems in a very different way, but the first targets were markets that could be described, valued, and where market research  was well established.

This is probably inevitable. The first applications of a new technology are likely to be in existing markets where customers and their needs can be readily identified. It allows a technology to be proven and established commercially. It is only later when the technology has earned its place in the toolbox that truly disruptive ideas and innovation happen.

So what did we invent that for?

WMarconihen Marconi developed a practical approach to wireless telegraphy, it did what it said on the tin. It was a way to use the principles of the telegraph in situations where it was impractical to lay physical wires. It was imagined and developed for point to point communications; for example from ship to shore.

Even after the capability was extended to voice transmission it was still seen as a tool for point to point communications.

Twenty years later David Sarnoff realised the potential of radio transmission to allow one person to speak to many, and broadcasting was born.

The potentially disruptive technology needed to be developed, absorbed and stabilised in an existing market through incremental innovation before it could become truly disruptive. This seems to be a general feature of many technologies.

Laser Radiation Warning Sign

When the laser was first developed, I am pretty sure the inventors did not realise that key applications would be speeding up supermarket checkouts, running the global telecoms network, allowing everyone to have a high quality text and graphics printer on their desk, and to own and enjoy the Dr Who back catalogue.

A small number of incremental and practical applications of laser technology allowed it to mature. Experimentation and further developments identified truly disruptive innovations.

And not all potentially disruptive technologies succeed. Buckyballs and other fullerenes have remarkable properties and made a lot of people very excited about how they could be used. So far their impact has been modest. Graphene has a similar exciting list of properties, and has been hyped just as much. These new materials may or may not lead to disruptive innovation and new markets, we don’t yet know. Large amounts of money have been, and continue to be, invested in these and other technologies. Which will be the game changers and disruptors we cannot predict.

Let’s be realistic!

This is not a counsel of despair; rather a plea for realism.

We can identify innovative technologies that could be transformative. Technologies that enable us to tackle problems in a completely new way, or to develop capabilities whose uses we can only dimly foresee. These offer the broadest potential.

We can speculate about what unmet user needs might exist driven by broad trends. These might be the biggest markets of the future.

And we can try to bring the two together in new products and services.

What we cannot do is say which technology, market need, product or service will actually be disruptive. Recognition of disruptive innovation comes after the fact. Whatever Clayton Christensen believes about “the corporate laws of physics”, prediction of success is impossible.

So let’s tone down the use of the word disruptive before it loses all meaning. Let’s focus on finding good innovative solutions to user needs that are commercially viable. History can then judge whether that was a disruptive innovation.

Would You Know a Disruptive Innovation if You Saw One?
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