What Is Disruptive Innovation?

Disruptive innovation refers to the innovation that transforms expensive or highly sophisticated products or services—previously accessible to a high-end or more-skilled segment of consumers—to those that are more affordable and accessible to a broader population. This transformation disrupts the market by displacing long-standing, established competitors.

Disruptive innovation is not the process of improving or enhancing products for the same target group; rather, it involves the technologies used to make them easy to use and available to the larger, non-targeted market. An example of disruptive innovation is the introduction of digital music downloads, which have, by far, replaced compact discs (CDs).

Key Takeaways

  • Disruptive innovation refers to innovations and technologies that make expensive or sophisticated products and services accessible and more affordable to a broader market.
  • The term refers to the use of technology that upsets a structure, as opposed to "disruptive technology", which refers to the technology itself.
  • Amazon, launched as an online bookstore in the mid-1990s, is an example of disruptive innovation.
  • Disruptive innovation requires enabling technology, an innovative business model, and a coherent value network.
  • Sustaining innovation is the process of innovating to improving products and services for existing customers.

Understanding Disruptive Innovation

Clayton Christensen popularized the idea of disruptive innovation in the book The Innovator’s Solution, which was a follow up to his The Innovators Dilemma published in 1997. Christensen posited that there were two types of technologies that businesses dealt with. Sustainable technologies were those that allowed a business to incrementally improve its operations on a predictable timeframe.

These technologies and the way they were incorporated into the business were primarily designed to allow companies to remain competitive, or at least maintain a status quo. Disruptive technologies and the way they are integrated—the disruptive innovations—were less easy to plan for and potentially more devastating to companies that did not pay enough attention to them.

Disruptive innovation is differentiated from disruptive technology in that it focuses on the use of the technology rather than the technology itself.

Requirements for Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation requires access to ignored or overlooked markets and technology that can transform a product into a more accessible and affordable one. To be disruptive, the network of partners—suppliers, contractors, and distributors—must also benefit from the new, disruptive business model.

Enabling Technology

In business, enabling technology is defined as the technologies and innovations that substantially change or improve processes or how people do things. Specific to disruptive innovation, enabling technology is the technology or innovation that makes possible the affordability and availability of a product to a broader market.

How quickly the market can be disrupted depends on how quickly the technology is developed and subsequently improved upon. How quickly disruption occurs, however, is not necessarily a metric used to gauge the success of the disruption.

Innovative Business Model

The innovative business model is a business model that uses innovations to target new or bottom-tier customers. These segments generally don't drive profits for established companies nor do they buy their offerings because they either could not afford them or the products were too sophisticated for use. This business model—a model not adopted by incumbents because of the disruptor's initial low-profit margins—seeks to present easy-to-use, economical solutions.

Coherent Value Network

The coherent value network includes the upstream and downstream business partners that benefit from a successful disruption. The distributors, suppliers, and vendors may require reorganization or process changes to adapt or conform to the new business model. Members of the network must subscribe to the new business model to prevent failure. Otherwise, old network processes will yield undesirable results by not prescribing to the goal of disruption.

Disruptive Innovation Examples

What makes a technology or innovation “disruptive” is a point of contention. The term may be used to describe technologies that are not truly disruptive. As mentioned above, the Internet was disruptive because it was not an iteration of previous technology. It was something new that created unique models for making money that never existed before. Of course, that created losses for other business models.

A classic example of the disruptive innovation of the Internet being unleashed was the restructuring of the bookselling industry. The big bookselling chains lost out to Amazon because it could display its inventory without having to own a physical store in every town and then ship the book to the buyer's home.

In contrast, the Model T car is not considered disruptive because it was an improvement on existing technology and it wasn't widely adopted upon its release. The auto industry didn't take off until mass production brought prices down, moving the entire transportation system from hooves to wheels. In that sense, the system of mass production does meet the criteria for disruptive innovation.

Disruptive Innovation vs. Sustaining Innovation

Disruptive innovation is an innovation that simplifies and makes more affordable products and services to undesirable or ignored markets. Established companies typically strive to improve their products and services for their profitable customer base, largely ignoring the needs and desires of untapped segments. This lack of attention gives smaller companies or new entrants ground to target this ignored population with simpler, more affordable options.

Sustaining innovation, on the other hand, is the process of innovating to make existing products and services better for the existing customer base, either based on customer or market demands. Sustaining innovation does not target untapped or ignored markets; rather, it's innovating to remain relevant and competitive. CD makers making CDs with the capacity to hold large volumes of music and that are scratch-resistant is sustaining innovation. A company introducing digital downloads via the Internet, making CDs obsolete, is disruptive innovation.

Special Considerations

Investing in a disruptive innovation can be complicated. It requires an investor to focus on how companies will adapt to disruptive technology, instead of focusing on the development of the technology itself. Companies such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook are examples of companies that have heavily focused on the Internet as a disruptive technology. 

The Internet has become so ingrained in the modern world that the companies that failed to integrate disruptive innovation into their business models have been pushed aside. Artificial intelligence (AI) and its potential to learn from employees and perform their jobs may be a disruptive innovation for the job market as a whole soon. 

Disruptive Innovation FAQs

What Is the Meaning of Disruptive Innovation?

Disruptive innovation refers to the process of transforming an expensive or highly sophisticated product, offering, or service into one that is simpler, more affordable, and accessible to a broader population.

What Is the Theory of Disruptive Innovation?

The theory of disruptive innovation explains the process of how innovation and technology can change markets by presenting affordable, simple, and accessible solutions and after doing so, disrupts the market from which its predecessors were born.

What Is a Disruptive Innovation Example?

People using smartphones instead of laptops and desktops for their computing needs, including web browsing and streaming, is an example of disruptive innovation. Technological enhancements have enabled cell phones to be equipped with small processors, chips, and software applications that support these functions.

Smartphone developers targeted the broad market of mobile consumers who have cellular devices and find it inconvenient to carry and access laptops when wanting to surf the net (not to mention an impossible task for desktops). Smartphones are small, easily storable and accessible, and relatively affordable as compared to laptops and desktops.

Is Amazon a Disruptive Innovation?

Amazon is perhaps one of the best examples of disruptive innovation. Before online shopping became widely popular, books were sold in traditional bookstores, such as Barnes and Nobles and the now-defunct Borders. However, in 1995, Jeff Bezos— subscribing to the notion that the Internet could significantly boost commerce—launched Amazon to sell books to a growing, but largely ignored online shopping community.

Amazon's popularity grew along with its profits and market share, moving many bookstores to the back of the shelf or out of business. Since its launch, Amazon has been successful in using the Internet to create an online shopping platform, whereby most of what's offered in a physical store—including groceries—can be ordered from Amazon's website. And it all began with a small, garage-born company using the power of the Internet to attend to the needs of a niche market of online shopping, book enthusiasts.

Is Netflix a Disruptive Innovation?

Netflix serves as a great example of disruptive innovation. During a time when VHS tapes and DVDs were rented in abundance from thousands of video stores, new-entrant Netflix saw an opening to cater to an overlooked market of online shoppers. With the Internet, they offered consumers the ability to peruse their catalog of DVDs, rent unencumbered by someone else's choice to rent the same selection, and have their selections sent directly to their home.

Not long after offering mail-delivered DVD rentals, they revised their business model, finding an avenue to disrupt themselves in the market by offering online-streamed entertainment. However, today, competitors have successfully duplicated this business model, taking away from Netflix's market share. Time will tell how disruptive Netflix can be.

After Netflix disrupted the media industry, Blockbuster went from having more than 9,000 Blockbuster brick-and-mortar stores to 1, which is now an Airbnb.

The Bottom Line

Disruptive innovation involves the innovative processes used to transform products and services into simple and affordable options for bottom-tier or traditionally unmarketable consumers. Unlike sustaining innovation, it does not involve improving existing products for current customers.

Disruptive innovation requires technology that can transform the product or service into something more affordable and easy-to-use, a business model that supports the disruptive innovation, and a network of upstream and downstream partners who support and will benefit from the success of the disruption. Amazon and Netflix are examples of market disruptors that began as new entrants in industries dominated by well-known, established companies.