A reader’s guide to Clay Christensen and disruptive innovation

[cross posted at FASTforward blog]

A dozen years ago, at the height of the dotcom boom, Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen published The Innovator’s Dilemma. It started from a simple observation that transformative innovations that reshaped competitive landscapes and created new industries almost invariable came from new organizations. Conventional wisdom held that this was a reflection of poor management and decision making on the part of incumbents. Christensen started with a more interesting, and ultimately more productive, question. What if it was sound management practice on the part of incumbents that prevented them from investing in those innovations that went on to create new industries? This question and Christensen’s research led to his distinguishing disruptive vs. sustaining forms of innovation. I originally reviewed the book in the Spring 1998 issue of Context Magazine. It became the bible of consulting firms working in the dotcom space. Every proposed idea was labeled as disruptive. Who knows, some of those consultant’s might even have read the book.

Meanwhile, Christensen and his colleagues and collaborators continued to work out the ideas and implications of his emerging theoretical framework. The Innovator’s Dilemma was followed by

  • The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth.

    In this book, Christensen begins to lay out how you can take the notions of disruptive innovation and use them to design a reasonable course of action in the absence of the kind of analytical data strategy consultants desire. Disruptive innovations attack either the lower ends of existing markets where there are customers willing to settle for less performance at less cost, or new markets where a new packaging and design of available technologies creates an alternative to non-consumption. The example I found easiest to understand here was Sony’s invention of the portable transistor radio. Compared to vacuum tube radios the first transistor radios were crappy, but good enough for teenagers and others on the go whose alternative was no music at all.

  •  Seeing What’s Next: Using Theories of Innovation to Predict Industry Change.

    In this third effort to work out the implications of distinguishing between sustaining and disruptive innovation, Christensen and his collaborators shift their attention from individual competitors to industry level analysis. They take their theoretical structures and apply them across several industry settings and ask how those particular industries (education, aviation, health care, semiconductors, and telecommunications) are more or less vulnerable to disruptive innovation strategies. What Christensen and colleagues are doing here is to begin integrating their innovation theories and Porter’s theories of competitive strategy. This is not so much a case of seeing whether their new theoretical hammer can pound strategy nails as it is of whether they are making progress in creating a new and robust toolkit for strategy problems.

  • The Innovator’s Guide to Growth: Putting Disruptive Innovation to Work, Anthony, Scott D.

    This volume is written by Scott Anthony and several other collaborators of Christensen who are putting his ideas to work at the consulting firm Innosight. They develop the next level of operational detail to transform strategic insights into execution details. If you re an organization seeking to develop its own disruptive strategy, the authors here have worked out the next level questions and identified the supporting analyses and design steps you would need to answer and complete. This volume is not a teaser; it s complete and coherent. You could pretty much take the book as a recipe and use it to develop your project plans. On the other hand, the plans by themselves won t guarantee that you can assemble a team with the necessary qualifications to execute the plan successfully. The other thing that this book does quite nicely is identify the kinds of organizational support structures and processes that you would want to put in place to institutionalize systematic disruptive innovation.

This core of books would equip you with a robust set of insights and practical techniques to begin thinking about when and where you might attempt to develop and deploy new products, services, and business models in disruptively innovative ways. The one area that is underdeveloped in this framework is that of design. There is an implicit bias in the material that tends to keep design in the "perform magic" category. I believe this is part and parcel of the general execution bias of business literature in general. Design is flaky, creative, stuff and real managers distinguish themselves on execution. But that is a topic for another post. These books belong on your shelf and the ideas belong in your toolkit.

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