The theory of disruptive innovation was introduced in the Harvard Business Review in 1995 and it has since become part of common business parlance. Twenty years after the publication of the original article, Clayton Chistensen, Michael Raynor, and Rory McDonald present a state of the art in a recent HBR article.
The authors fear that
disruption theory is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success. Despite broad dissemination, the theory’s core concepts have been widely misunderstood and its basic tenets frequently misapplied. Furthermore, essential refinements in the theory over the past 20 years appear to have been overshadowed by the popularity of the initial formulation. As a result, the theory is sometimes criticized for shortcomings that have already been addressed.
And they are not pleased either with the way the expression itself is being used.
Too frequently, they use the term loosely to invoke the concept of innovation in support of whatever it is they wish to do. Many researchers, writers, and consultants use “disruptive innovation” to describe any situation in which an industry is shaken up and previously successful incumbents stumble. But that’s much too broad a usage.
executives with a good understanding of disruption theory tend to forget some of its subtler aspects when making strategic decisions.
They identify four points that get overlooked or misunderstood:
- Disruption is a process.
- Disrupters often build business models that are very different from those of incumbents.
- Some disruptive innovations succeed; some don’t.
- The mantra “Disrupt or be disrupted” can misguide us.
The latter part of the article reviews ways in which the authors’ thinking about disruptive innovation has evolved and it ends on a cautionary note:
Disruption theory does not, and never will, explain everything about innovation specifically or business success generally. Far too many other forces are in play, each of which will reward further study. Integrating them all into a comprehensive theory of business success is an ambitious goal, one we are unlikely to attain anytime soon.
See also A new version of Porter’s five-forces model.