The Basics of Disruptive Innovation

In his book Deep Work Cal Newport shares a story about Clay Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who coined the term disruptive innovation. Its an idea I like quite a bit, especially since it is a big concept in healthcare right now, and I focused quite a bit on health policy and dabbled slightly in healthcare economics during my graduate studies.

 

Newport describes the basics of disruption like this, “entrenched companies are often unexpectedly dethroned by start-ups that begin with cheap offerings at the low end of the market, but then, over time, improve their cheap products just enough to begin to steal high-end market share.”

 

In this model, Uber wouldn’t be a disruptive innovation. Uber didn’t do anything to dramatically change the world of taxis. They sidestepped a lot of entrenched thinking and decided that laws and regulations didn’t apply to them while introducing badly needed technology to the world of taxis, but they didn’t offer a new cheap version of the service to gradually build upon and improve.

 

An example of disruptive innovations that I like, that I learned about in a healthcare economics class, is Bose headphones. Bose is producing headphones that have impressive noise cancelling, noise isolating, and noise amplifying technologies. They are certainly not cheap consumer products, but compared to highly technical, very expensive, and highly individualized hearing aids, they are. They don’t do everything that a hearing aid does now, and they don’t provide quite as good of a hearing experience for someone who relies on hearing aids, but they do seem to be able to compete at the lower end of the market. For people who are currently priced out of hearing aids and people who don’t have complete hearing loss but maybe should start considering hearing aids, Bose headphones seem like they can help. They can cancel competing sounds and provide just enough amplification and isolation to improve some people’s hearing…even if hearing aids would be a better long term solution.

 

The concept is important for several reasons. If you are a business executive, you need to know what is happening in your market space, and you need to know when someone is coming along to provide a cheaper service that might one day compete with you directly, or steal your market share. Also, from a regulatory standpoint, understanding disruptive innovations and where they may be occurring is important. If people are ditching their pricey hearing aids for less effective Bose headphones, are they putting themselves at risk while driving or navigating busy environments? What happens if a disruptive innovation guts an industry, and leaves people with disabilities who relied on the high priced product’s level of support and customization without a suitable product or service?

 

We should keep disruptive innovations in mind because they can unlock new potentials (we do a lot with our phones in ways that are quicker but not always as user friendly as old standard alternatives) but can also be dangerous for individuals and markets (should we really allow anyone to use a phone to scan their eyes to get a new glasses prescription?). Thinking about disruptive innovations helps us think about current social and economic trends, and it also forces us to be more considerate of others. We have to balance and weigh the interests of business, the interests of new consumers, and the interests of vulnerable populations when we think about where a disruptive innovation could push a market.

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