Help to Grow: Management Course | Kingston University

Disruptive Innovation: Yay or Nay?

Reshaping Industries and Driving Progress
By Maliha Haider
June 24, 2024

In today’s fast-paced business world, the mantra for small and medium-sized enterprises and businesses (SMBs and SMEs) is clear: disrupt or be disrupted. But what exactly is disruptive innovation, and why does it matter so much?

Coined by Clayton Christensen in “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” disruptive innovation refers to a process where a smaller company with fewer resources successfully challenges established businesses. These innovations often start in low-end or new market footholds, initially underperforming established products in mainstream markets. However, they gain traction by offering more suitable functionality—often at a lower price—and eventually move upmarket to challenge industry leaders.

To understand disruptive innovation, it’s helpful to contrast it with sustaining innovation. While sustaining innovation improves existing products for current customers, disruptive innovation targets overlooked segments, often with lower initial quality but at a lower price point. It introduces new business models and carries higher risk, but with the potential for industry-wide change.

Some of the real-world examples abound; Netflix disrupted traditional video rental with its DVD-by-mail service and later streaming, transforming entertainment consumption. Airbnb created a new market for private accommodations, challenging the hotel industry. Tesla’s electric vehicles and direct-to-consumer model accelerated the shift to sustainable transportation. Uber’s ride-hailing app revolutionized urban transportation, disrupting the taxi industry.

So, how can SMEs foster disruptive innovation? Here are key strategies:

  1. Create a culture of experimentation, encouraging risk-taking and learning from failures.
  2. Focus on unmet customer needs through extensive market research and design thinking.
  3. Invest in emerging technologies and consider partnering with or acquiring promising startups.
  4. Prioritise long-term success over short-term profits; means sustainable business model and practices.
  5. Embrace open innovation by collaborating with external partners and diverse perspectives.

Innovation experts emphasise the importance of this approach. Clayton Christensen warns, “Disruptive innovation can hurt if you’re not the one doing the disrupting.” Steve Jobs asserted, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” Jeff Bezos advocates for customer focus, allowing for more pioneering work. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings notes, “Companies rarely die from moving too fast, and they frequently die from moving too slowly.” Ignoring disruptive trends can result in loss of market share, obsolescence of core products, and declining revenue and profitability.

For those wanting to dive deeper, recommended reads include “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen, “Zero to One” by Peter Thiel, and “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries.

It’s important for us to realise that the change is constant and disruptive innovation isn’t just a buzzword—it’s a survival strategy. By understanding and embracing it, small and medium sized business leaders can stay ahead of the curve, create new markets, and drive meaningful progress. The choice is clear: disrupt or be disrupted. Do you agree?