The Hard Truth About Business Model Innovation

  • Clayton M. Christensen, Thomas Bartman, and Derek van Bever
  • September 13, 2016

Many attempts at business model innovation fail. To change that, executives need to understand how business models develop through predictable stages over time — and then apply that understanding to key decisions about new business models.

Surveying the landscape of recent attempts at business model innovation, one could be forgiven for believing that success is essentially random. For example, conventional wisdom would suggest that Google Inc., with its Midas touch for innovation, might be more likely to succeed in its business model innovation efforts than a traditional, older, industrial company like the automaker Daimler AG. But that’s not always the case. Google+, which Google launched in 2011, has failed to gain traction as a social network, while at this writing Daimler is building a promising new venture, car2go, which has become one of the world’s leading car-sharing businesses. Are those surprising outcomes simply anomalies, or could they have been predicted?

To our eyes, the landscape of failed attempts at business model innovation is crowded — and becoming more so — as management teams at established companies mount both offensive and defensive initiatives involving new business models. A venture capitalist who advises large financial services companies on strategy shared his observation about the anxiety his investors feel about the changes underway in their industry: “They look at the fintech [financial technology] startups and see their business models being unbundled and attacked at every point in the value chain.” And financial services companies are not alone. A PwC survey published in 2015 revealed that 54% of CEOs worldwide were concerned about new competitors entering their market, and an equal percentage said they had either begun to compete in nontraditional markets themselves or considered doing so.1 For its part, the Boston Consulting Group reports that in a 2014 survey of 1,500 senior executives, 94% stated that their companies had attempted some degree of business model innovation.2

We’ve decided to wade in at this juncture because business model innovation is too important to be left to random chance and guesswork. Executed correctly, it has the ability to make companies resilient in the face of change and to create growth unbounded by the limits of existing businesses.