If you disrupt and can’t sustain, you don’t win. – Gary Pisano
Disruptive innovations that throw industries into chaos hog the spotlight. We are all transfixed by Google’s Moonshot attempts at either changing transportation, how we interact with objects and people that we believe those are the only innovations that matter.
Academics and consultants like coming up with fancy ways of describing certain types of behaviors and outcomes, and when it comes to innovation incremental and radical are such they use to describe and compare between small plain-vanilla innovation and radical or disruptive innovation.
Silver bullets are rare
Disruption has become innovation’s favorite buzzword. I don’t really like categorizing innovation into incremental, radical, or any other variety of innovation consultants make up. Rather, for innovation; you’ll know it when you’ll see it. New doesn’t equal innovation. Rather, innovations that make life simpler and more enjoyable are the ones that get adopted. People won’t adopt something because it’s disruptive, as I’ve said before, people don’t care if you’re innovative.
A frenzy of discussion has been triggered by an article on the New Yorker by Jill Lepore who questions the validity of Clay Christensen’s theory of disruption. My take is that just like all theories, it has no absolutes. Disruption happens after the fact, not at first. And frankly, you don’t try to be disruptive; it just happens. Also, disruption is the result of many factors and events happening, not just those moves that a specific company makes to create a lower cost version of a product that serves non-consumers.
Though, when it comes to disruption, a good rule of thumb to follow is this: If it’s making money immediately, it’s not innovation.
Nowadays, disruption has become more of a call to arms, as it’s used to describe conference names, books, and everything else in between. But what many miss when talking about disruption is this: you have to sustain it…
Gary Pisano, one recent article on Harvard Business Review, makes the point that sustainable innovations are key to the long-term success of a business:
All the excitement about disruptive innovation has blinded us to one simple but irrefutable economic fact: The vast majority of profit from innovation does not come from the initial disruption; it comes from the stream of routine, or sustaining, innovations that accumulate for years (sometimes decades) afterward. An innovation strategy has to include both. Intel is certainly one of the great disruptors of all time. Its microprocessor fundamentally altered the structure of the personal computer industry. Yet, its strategy for almost three decades has largely been that of a sustainer, not a disruptor. Its fortunes have been built upon its successes in pushing the technological frontier of the microprocessor. But its essential value proposition — a higher-performing, high-margin product — has not changed.
Yes, small innovation matters for disruption, because it happens in slow phases. Incremental improvements can be transformational. For example, the iPhone’s industry transformation is still being felt to this day; thought it’s been 7 years since it was launched.
Apple created a platform of Little Giants that together amounted to their HUGE IDEA. In all industries, this type of thinking is rare because there is an obsession with thinking big, not doing big. Doing Big means sustaining and transforming, that’s what innovation as a capability is about.
Another example is the thermostat that’s been living in our your home for ages. Nest, since bought by Google, decided the thermostat needed to be rethought for the age of connectivity and information overload. Does that mean they are disruptors?
No. Rather they updated an old tool for a future where an ecosystem of connected devices will surround us. That’s just excellent strategic thinking, a Little Giant waiting to be part of a HUGE IDEA.
Bottom line: I don’t think we’re obsessed with big ideas, disruption or whatever else you want to call them. I think we’re obsessed with theories of success; and we yearn for predictable outcomes. When it comes to innovation, business theories should be debated and used as perspective shifting lenses, not as Silver Bullet ideas that yield predictable outcomes.
Prediction isn’t possible because the future is a range. Yet we’re free to create whatever future we want. So rather than follow other people’s theories for success, make your own. As Emmet “Doc” Brown said, “Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.”