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HBX Business Blog

4 Myths About Disruption - A Discussion with Innosight's Mark Johnson

Posted by Jake Schroeder on April 21, 2016 at 11:35 AM


Nearly 20 years ago, Professor Clayton Christensen was the first to use the term “disruption” in a business sense. From the beginning, Professor Christensen gave disruption a specific definition to describe specific phenomena. Over time, the meaning of disruption has diminished as many use it to refer to something that is “…cooler or faster or based around a more advanced technology.” Working directly with Professor Christensen over the last two years has helped me to see that correctly understanding disruption can yield profound insights to questions like:

  • Competition: How do we respond to competitors? How do we position ourselves in the marketplace?
  • Growth Strategy: Where should we look for new growth opportunities? How can we predict if our new ventures will be successful?
  • Understanding Customers: What do our customers really care about? How can we uncover their true needs?

So what is disruption? Professor Christensen says that a disruptive innovation is one that “transforms a complicated, expensive product into one that is easier to use or is more affordable than the one most readily available.”

Recently, I sat down with Mark Johnson, co-Founder and Senior Partner at Innosight, to discuss the use of the term “disruption.” Johnson identified four common myths that, when dispelled, can bring greater understanding to what disruption truly is.

Myth #1: The purpose of disruption is to topple giants. 

Big disruptions tend to get a lot of media, like Netflix disrupting Blockbuster. However, Johnson says that it’s important to remember that these disruptions weren’t designed to destroy incumbents. “Rather,” he says, “the innovators succeeded because of their relentless focus on satisfying under-appreciated consumer needs, or what we call ‘jobs-to-be-done.’”

Myth #2: Disruptions always develop something entirely new.

Instead of introducing brand new technologies, many disruptions simply assemble existing elements and deploy them in a disruptive manner. Platform-based businesses like Uber are an example. Uber didn’t invent taxis, the internet, or apps. But the company assembled these components to offer a service that initially wasn’t as convenient as taxis. But over time Uber improved little by little, pulling customers into their market share.

Myth #3: Disruption is all about technology.

Disruption is not necessarily centered around technology. Many disruptions are business model disruptions. Here, Johnson gives the example of Warby Parker, an online retailer of prescription glasses. Many eyeglass-wearing people are overserved by in-person ophthalmology clinics. Warby Parker serves these overserved customers by utilizing a new, virtual business model. Warby Parker didn’t invent any new technology, but they introduced a new business model to a historically stagnant industry.

Myth #4: Customers care about inventions and innovations.

Johnson says, “What customers care about is whether a product or service enables them to do something that they could not do, or do well enough, before.” Companies shouldn’t be innovative for the sake of being innovative. To be successful, innovations must have purpose. Disruptions find traction only when there is a population of consumers who find the disruption useful in getting a job done.

Want to learn more about disruption and other theories from Professor Christensen? Disruptive Strategy will equip you with the tools, frameworks, and intuition to make a difference.

Learn more about HBX Disruptive Strategy with Clay Christensen