There has been a lot of talk about disruptive innovation and disruptive technology in the media and technology circles lately. The truth is the not many of us really understand what disruption really means and most of the time we are thinking about tablets and mobile phones as disruptive technologies. Whenever I ask people their views on what disruptive technology is, I mostly hear comments to the tune of, ‘disruptive technology is something that is new and different’. Although there is some truth to that concept, the confusion arises when every latest piece of technology on the market claims to be unique, different and innovative.
It is important to understand the differences between innovation and disruptive innovation if you are interested in adopting a disruptive technology to leverage its benefits. They may sound similar, but there are significant differences between these two concepts.
Clayton Christensen, a Harvard professor, first coined the term ‘disruptive innovation’ in 1997 in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma. The theory of disruptive innovation is very different to the views I hear most commonly from people. According to Christensen, disruptive innovation transforms a market by introducing the concept of simplicity, accessibility, convenience and affordability to a product or service that was previously complex and difficult to use or acquire for a target segment. I say target segment because if we look at aeroplanes, they are also a disruptive innovation as they changed the way we travelled long distance, but the average person on the street will not go and purchase one. However, for the target segment, it is affordable, accessible, convenient and simple. Disruptive innovation gets closer to the customer in the target market and solves a problem they did not know existed. If we take the example of the internet, it changed our world for ever, because it allowed us to search for pretty much anything from our keyboards and all of a sudden our reach across the world in real time not only became possible but also widened. In other words, while innovation improves the status quo, disruptive innovation changes the status quo.
Now let’s compare this to innovation. A good example of innovation is a new car model with new features such as automatic breaking system, reverse camera, sensor lights or seat heaters etc. Since cars already exist and are targeted for certain segments of the market, any improvements or developments in the style of seating or better driving aids cannot be considered disruptive, but just innovative, that is unless we have ‘self-driving’ cars.
Disruption is about a complete transformation of the way people do things, not just an improvement of the existing state of play. It is the end of ‘business as usual’. By creating new markets, disruptive technologies do not play at the competitor saturation points, they create their own new and separate entry point. I mentioned new car models when I spoke about innovation, but before the innovations in the automobile industry became a norm, a car in itself was a disruptive innovation because it created an opportunity rather than taking advantage of an existing one. As Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.” Cars changed the way we travelled, and while the purpose of getting from point A to point B did not change, the travel became smoother, more convenient and easier because a car was not going to die of disease or needed to be fed. In other words, it made the horse obsolete!
A disruptive technology is not one that people rush out to get once it is introduced. Disruptive technologies take time to develop and generally have a slow uptake because it requires a phenomenal mindset adjustment combined with the fear of the unknown. Early adopters try it, then it is improved upon after which it slowly permeates through the masses becoming the new status quo. Disruptive technologies can be classified disruptive for a limited period of time, because once they are adopted by the visionaries or late majority, disruptive technologies have reached what can be described as an emergent technology state. The reason being, by this time normally there are other competitors in the market and the creators of technology have delivered new and improved versions after the market has tested the product. At this stage a new status quo has been created.
So if you are considering stepping out of your comfort zone and trying to identify a disruptive technology that will give you the edge, ask yourself if it ticks all three of the following boxes:
– The technology changes your company’s ‘business as usual’.
– You have never even thought of a solution like this in existence.
– There are no competing products or products that offer the same solution on market.
So go on and disrupt yourself. Make your time-consuming and complex processes obsolete, before your competitors do.
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