Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of Dr Clayton Christensen’s work. (no, that’s not him pictured above.) Especially his game-changing book “Innovator’s Dilemma.” But I have a bone to pick with him because with the release of that title in 1997 he hijacked the word “disruptive innovation” and has sent a generation of corporate cubicle jockeys searching vainly in the wrong direction.

(Never mind that he actually coined the phrase in the first place.)

Disruptive Innovations

This was highlighted last week when I ran a workshop in Shanghai on Disruptive Thinking for a sportswear brand whose product you are very likely to be wearing somewhere on your body at this very moment.

We spent quite a bit of time up front getting aligned on what disruption is … and isn’t.

By Christensen’s definition it’s the ongoing migration to the northeast quadrant of more bells and whistles, greater complexity, higher price, etc. Which creates a vacuum in the southwest quadrant for someone to bring in a more basic, functional, possibly stripped-down version of your thing that performs roughly the same job at a lower price.

Hence new market entrants appear, build a following, and start gradually swimming upstream after you and gobbling up your market. You know, as in “disrupting” you and spoiling your day, if not your whole financial quarter. I get it.

But …

The problem is this.

What word do we have to describe those innovations that jump into the market and completely turn the world upside down? You know, guys like AirBNB, Uber, Netflix. That’s truly disruptive to me because it fits the dictionary definition (thanks, Cambridge) such as “causing trouble and therefore stopping something from continuing as usual.”

I’m working with a broadcasting company in Malaysia that has been completely broadsided by Netflix. That disruption has got nothing to do with lower prices, less functionally or being stripped down. In fact it’s the opposite. But the consumer delight and enhanced entertainment experience of Netflix is apparently worth paying for.

Yes, we can call these step innovations or platform innovations. But those terms don’t nearly have the punk energy to capture the anarchy, the gung-ho creativity, and the market mayhem that’s unleashed by these sorts of players.

The other problem is of course overuse of the word “disruptive.” Very few things truly are that extreme to warrant it. And some more conservative types (such as the consumer goods industry) confuse a 1% marginal gain for being disruptive, because in their world that’s considered really moving the needle. It’s a good day’s work, but it’s NOT really disruptive.

Even the king of disruption, Elon Musk — not known for treading lightly on anything — treads lightly with this word.

The Takeaway

So maybe we need a whole new word? Radical Innovation, perhaps.

What are YOUR suggestions?

Would love to hear them, because I’d like us all to move to a greater common understanding of what disruptive innovation is. Anyway, thanks Dr Christensen, for starting the conversation in the first place. Your book was really … um … radical.

To find out more get in touch with us today on (+61) 2 9648 3323 or email us at Read more Blogs.