The Theory of Disruptive Innovation, defined by Harvard Business School (HBS) Professor Clayton Christensen in 1997, explains the process by which simple, convenient and affordable solutions become the norm in industries historically characterized by expensive and complicated ones. Examples of disruption include TurboTax tax preparation software, which disrupted accountants, and Netflix, which disrupted retail video stores and is now giving Hollywood film studios a serious run for their money.
According to Christensen, a critical condition of disruption (but not the only one) is an “enabling technology”—an invention or innovation that makes a product or service (or “solution”) more accessible to a wider population in terms of cost, and ease of acquisition and/or use. For instance, innovations making equipment for dialysis cheaper and simpler helped make it possible to administer the treatment in neighborhood clinics, rather than in centralized hospitals, thus disrupting hospital’s share of the dialysis business.
However in an interview in Working Knowledge, the online newsletter highlighting HBS research, marketing Professor Thales Teixeira asserts that it’s not innovative technology that disrupts a market. Rather, it’s companies recognizing and addressing emerging customer needs sooner than incumbents. “…In many industries, both the disrupter and the disrupted had similar technologies and similar amounts of technology,” he points out. “The common pattern was that the majority of customers in those markets had changing needs and wants, and their behavior was changing.”
Well that’s interesting. Does Teixeira’s view on the role of technology in disruption, at least as summarized in the interview, contradict Christensen’s groundbreaking work? Not at all. In fact, Teixeira effectively reinforces an oft-overlooked nuance of the latter: disruption is not just about the innovative solution, no matter how novel, dazzling or slick the technology it may employ. It’s about using the solution to do a job for consumers that makers of incumbent

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