For the past 20 years, the theory of disruptive innovation has been enormously influential in business circles and a powerful tool for predicting which industry entrants will succeed. Unfortunately, the theory has also been widely misunderstood, and the “disruptive” label has been applied too carelessly anytime a market newcomer shakes up well-established incumbents.
In this article, the architect of disruption theory, Clayton M. Christensen, and his coauthors correct some of the misinformation, describe how the thinking on the subject has evolved, and discuss the utility of the theory.
They start by clarifying what classic disruption entails—a small enterprise targeting overlooked customers with a novel but modest offering and gradually moving upmarket to challenge the industry leaders. They point out that Uber, commonly hailed as a disrupter, doesn’t actually fit the mold, and they explain that if managers don’t understand the nuances of disruption theory or apply its tenets correctly, they may not make the right strategic choices. Common mistakes, the authors say, include failing to view disruption as a gradual process (which may lead incumbents to ignore significant threats) and blindly accepting the “Disrupt or be disrupted” mantra (which may lead incumbents to jeopardize their core business as they try to defend against disruptive competitors).
The authors acknowledge that disruption theory has certain limitations. But they are confident that as research continues, the theory’s explanatory and predictive powers will only improve.