Disruptive Technologies

Around 2000 or 2001, the CIO I worked for at the time recommended a book by one Clayton M. Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School, called The Innovator’s Dilemma. Looking at examples such as the disk drive industry of the 1970’s and 1980’s, Christensen observed that in a “traditional” market the customer may call for an improved version of the existing product or service – in this case faster, higher-capacity disk drives, cheaper. The most dominant players in the market, even though they listen carefully to their customers’ stated needs and respond with such evolutionary improvement, commonly miss the revolutionary change that inevitably hits that market (perhaps because of listening so carefully!). The re-writable CD, or USB stick, or cloud-based storage offering comes along to solve the underlying customer need in a different way – a way which may be orders of magnitude better than the existing solution. Quite likely no-one asked for this new solution, in fact they could probably not conceive of such a thing, but all the more the incumbent players miss the opportunity and suffer the consequences in lost market share, or even go out of business entirely.
This is, of course, the kind of business phenomenon we now frequently hear as Disruptive Technology, and/or Innovation. Tempting as it is to think of as a very recent phenomenon, relating solely to Information Technology, it has played out at least since the early phases of the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps earlier – maybe the Bronze Age guys came along with their metallic solutions and wiped the floor with the Stone brigade – only to be taken down a peg or two by the more agile entrepreneurs of the Iron Age.
Now don’t take this as an argument against listening to customers – far from it – but to quote the adage oft attributed to Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Innovation can be about faster, better, cheaper, more colours, but the more disruptive and ultimately successful innovation is likely to be something different. Something derived from stepping back from the haste and noise of the day-to-day marketing efforts, sales activities, and operational rhythms, and asking the question “What is the customer’s underlying problem – what are they trying to achieve – and how could we meet that need?” A “new how” to the underlying “what”, not just a minor enhancement to the “current how”. Or similarly, is there a “new what” that is not currently being addressed at all?
After all, is it not terribly arrogant, or terribly lazy, or both, to think that your current product or service is the best possible solution ever to the deepest physiological and psychological needs of your customers, apart from a trivial tweak or periodic facelift?

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