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In the decades since Clayton M. Christensen first shared his Theory of Disruptive Innovation with the world, his thinking has led to the creation of billions of dollars of revenue, hundreds of companies, and an entirely new paradigm for how industry entrants upend established giants. Karen Dillon — Christensen’s longtime collaborator and guest editor of this special issue of MIT Sloan Management Review — had a chance to sit down with him before his death in January to learn how he had refined his thinking, what the future of innovation looked like through that lens, and what questions he was still wrestling with. This is an edited version of their conversation.
MIT Sloan Management Review: Over the years, the phrase disruptive innovation has come to mean all manner of things to people. But the broad, sweeping implication that “disruptive” is synonymous with “ambitious upstart” is not correct, is it? How would you like to define disruptive innovation for the record?
Clayton M. Christensen: Disruptive innovation describes a process by which a product or service powered by a technology enabler initially takes root in simple applications at the low end of a market — typically by being less expensive and more accessible — and then relentlessly moves upmarket, eventually displacing established competitors. Disruptive innovations are not breakthrough innovations or “ambitious upstarts” that dramatically alter how business is done but, rather, consist of products and services that are simple, accessible, and affordable. These products and services often appear modest at their outset but over time have the potential to transform an industry. Robert Merton talked about the idea of “obliteration by incorporation,” where a concept becomes so popularized that its origins are forgotten. I fear that has happened to the core idea of the theory of disruption, which is important to understand because it is a tool that people can use to predict behavior. That’s its value — not just to predict what your competitor will do but also to predict what your own company might do. It can help you avoid choosing the wrong strategy.
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You have been a big proponent of the benefits of causal theory. What do you think of the argument that big data obviates the need to seek causality?
Christensen: Well, it’s important to first recognize that the data are not the phenomena.
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