Nondisruptive Creation: Rethinking Innovation and Growth

It’s time to dispel the myth that innovation must be disruptive. Nondisruptive creation is an alternative path to growth.

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In recent years disruption has become the battle cry of business. Disruption occurs when an innovation creates a new market and business model that cause established players to fall. We love the ease of taking, sharing, and storing digital photographs — a disruption that led to the demise of both Kodak and the once ubiquitous film market. Millions of us benefit from Uber’s driver-on-demand service, even as it displaces existing taxi companies.

Not surprisingly, many have come to view disruption as a synonym for innovation. Scores of articles offer advice on how to succeed as a disruptive innovator and how to defend against a disruptive challenger. Corporate leaders are continually warned that disruption lurks around every corner and that the only way to survive, succeed, and grow is to disrupt their industries or even their own companies.

But is disruption the only way to innovate and grow? Is it even the best way? Our research and analysis over the last three decades suggest that the answer is no. Disruption may be what people talk about, and it’s certainly important and all around us. But we found that a single-minded focus on disruption leads companies to overlook another building block of innovation and growth — one that we would argue is more important.1

That other building block is what we call nondisruptive creation, which offers a new way of thinking about what’s possible. It highlights the immense potential for creating new markets where none existed before. This is creation without disruption or destruction. All the demand generated by this kind of innovation is new.

Most companies remain stuck in the mindset that in order to create you must disrupt or destroy. The time has come to fully embrace the idea that you can create without destroying. Nondisruptive creation breaks the existing frame on innovation and growth and allows for a much broader view of how they are generated. It expands the conversation about where real opportunities reside.

In this article we define nondisruptive creation; outline its distinctive advantages for established companies, startups, and society; and offer a framework to help leaders charged with driving innovation achieve the kind of growth that best suits their companies. We then spotlight which strategies trigger nondisruptive creation and which lead to disruption.



1. Since the publication of our research on blue ocean strategy, where we outline the pattern of market-creating strategy for growth, a question we often confronted was how the creation of blue oceans or new markets differs from disruption. In an attempt to address this question, we examined the blue ocean data and found that while blue oceans came with a measure of disruption, many were created in a nondisruptive way, generating all-new demand beyond industry boundaries. As our research and thinking deepened on this topic, we realized that nondisruptive creation has always existed in business life and that many markets, contrary to common assumptions about disruption, were based on nondisruptive creation. This is the genesis of our theory of nondisruptive creation presented here.

2. For discussions on the existence and economic importance of new goods, including those that did not replace existing ones, see T. Bresnahan and R. Gordon, eds., The Economics of New Goods (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Also see A. Bhidé, The Venturesome Economy: How Innovation Sustains Prosperity in a More Connected World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), which discusses the existence and importance of innovations that were driven by the nondestructive form of entrepreneurship.

3. For Kickstarter’s estimation of its full impact, see Y. Strickler, “Kickstarter’s Impact on the Creative Economy,” The Kickstarter Blog, July 28, 2016.

4. See C.B. Frey and M.A. Osborne, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerization,” working paper, Sept. 17, 2013, wherein “computerization” refers to job automation by means of computer-controlled equipment and technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and robotics.

5. The Cruise Lines International Association’s 2017 annual report revealed that the industry generated 1.02+ million jobs and had an economic impact of $126 billion in 2016.

6. While in the broadest sense the term “innovation” can be used to describe anything new or original, as our prior discussions illuminate, our focus here is limited to innovation that unlocks market creation, since market creation is at the heart of new growth.

i. Clayton M. Christensen has spurred the recent popularity of the term “disruption” through his influential work on disruptive technology and innovation. See his seminal work, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1997).

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Comments (18)
The authors make a useful point, and I don't think it is just "incremental/adjacent" innovation, but on the other hand, many innovations that they assert are non-disruptive in fact ARE disruptive.  

For instance, the phonograph and subsequent music-recording technologies did not just replace memory; they were disruptive to the market for live performances, as movies were disruptive to theater.  They expanded the market to people who never WERE able to afford the live performances, but the percentage of people who see live theater today is much smaller than a century or more ago.  Online dating services disrupted both professional and avocational matchmaking, and also significantly reduced the potential audience for a whole class of "meet market" bars and clubs that were hot in the '80s, which have been replaced somewhat by "destination" bars and restaurants where you can have an interesting culinary or artisanal-cocktail experience with your Match-dot-com date.

In some cases, frivolous spending that may appear not to have displaced anything, like smartphone cases and accessories, may have displaced intangibles like savings.

In the case of some innovations like WII, the non-disruptive portion of its impact was bringing in people who had not previously used such a product (in this case game consoles).  But it would be interesting to find out what those users USED to do with their time.  WII did not create more hours in the day.  Did people who used the console to "bowl" virtually end up bowling less in the real world -- for instance?

I think the model of non-disruptive innovation is a useful one and may provide a path for replacing jobs eliminated by other technologies, but I also think that fewer innovations are truly non-disruptive, compared to what the authors believe.
Carlos Martinez
I see some people commenting this article is a new way to name incremental innovation. I strongly disagree. Incremental innovation is about improving an existing product by adding features to it. The razor is the best example I can think of. Companies add features (in some cases, features nobody need/want) such as a vibrating handle or extra blades. A start up named Dollar Shave Club tried to be a disruptor by challenging this innovation model. They design basic razors without all these extra features and included a delivery service plus a membership business model. They were bought by Unilever before DSC had the chance to disrupt the market.

What the authors are trying to explain is how focusing on problems nobody has ever looked into, help create new business opportunities to innovate without affecting/destroying a market. I feel this article connected to Porter's idea of shared value. Thanks for the good read.
NonDistruptive Creation indeed will play a big role in the countries with high population growth (such as India) if we want to minimize the societal disruption that a large addition (of number of people) every year to the country will cause. It is also heartening to see that many of the problems that are currently solved by the startup boom in India falls under the category of 
- Identify and solve a brand-new problem or seize a brand-new opportunity.
- Redefine an existing industry problem and solve the redefined problem.
Even companies like Uber are solving the problem whereby they have redefined an existing transportation problem for middle class who did not want to take public transport and were forced to take unsafe AutoRickshaws. That is why Uber did not face much of resistance from taxi drivers in majority of cities as their numbers were limited.
In developing and underdeveloped countries, the situation is ripe for NonDisruptive Creation as there are many noncustomers present in these countries who have been ignored by traditional business present there. 
Hope to see many success stories coming out of Asia, Africa and Latin America in this category.
As regards adjacent innovation, I am not sure Uber services in India or MicroFinance services in developing countries will fall under adjacent innovation.
Jae W. Park
As the authors point out in this article, many businesses and governments have mistakenly assumed or believed that the only way to innovate and grow is to disrupt the existing businesses and industries. I believe the most important contribution of this seminal article is to clearly define and show an alternative way to innovate and grow for businesses and societies. 

In the face of the on-going fourth industrial revolution, unless we rapidly shift our innovation focus from disruption to nondisruptive creation, societies all around the world will have to pay very painful (but avoidable) social adjustment costs. Especially, politicians and policymakers should take this message to their hearts in formulating their national innovation strategies and related public policies so that they can minimize the social conflicts and cost of innovation and growth. 

As the authors suggest, if we think deeply about burning but overlooked issues around us, we will be able to identify a number of important yet unaddressed problems and new exciting opportunities for nondisruptive creation. It is great that this article not only provides a broader and more complete view of how to innovate and grow but also offers how and where to find and seize opportunities for nondisruptive creation without disrupting the existing players. 

Among some potential areas for nondisruptive creation suggested by the authors, I personally find the world’s ageing population very interesting since businesses and societies have not yet properly addressed their mental and emotional pain points. Moreover, a large number of baby-boomers who have been entering into a conventional retirement stage are still very healthy, highly-educated, IT-savvy, well-experienced and most importantly very eager to continue to contribute to their communities in a meaningful way if given opportunities. These ever-increasing reluctant retirees in many countries with rapidly ageing population are huge reservoirs for future blue oceans by nondisruptive creation.
Johnson Yuvan
I see so many startup events with "disruption" themes. It is like startups are only for disrupting existing industries and existing players. As this article mentioned, Uber is one of those startups disrupted the existing taxi industry. It created good value propositions for customers but also destroyed so many jobs.

I think that the authors are providing a new, fresh perspective for startups. There are many new successful businesses/startups WITHOUT disrupting existing players as described in this article. So, startups out there, stop thinking that disrupting someone is the only way to be successful. Your startup can also succeed through nondisruptive creation!
Krzysztof Cembrowski
There are no nondisruptive innovations. In fact aim of each one is to disrupt in order to create advantage (and value) to the company and value to its customers.
So its all semantics.
In my opinion we can only discuss scale of disruption.
Market pretenders (startups) use innovations that shake markets to their cores to create environment to take (occupied) market lider position. 
While existing leaders use innovations less disruptive in order to sustain their position without demolishing favourable for them market rules.
Is it that obvious?
Laurie Epstein
I don’t think the authors of this article are saying that nondisruption is superior to disruption. They are simply pointing out the fact that while nondisruption has always been part of the reality when it comes to innovation, growth and social progress, it is very often overlooked as the corporate world and the media predominantly focus their attention on disruption. And “disruption” as understood by the general public differs from Clayton Christensen’s original description of a disruptive method (which is basically about using inferior technology to disrupt from the low end and overtaking the mainstream market gradually through incremental improvements), in that it is used mainly to describe the result and effect of any innovation that fundamentally changes the industry landscape. Most people in turn are not looking for methodologies of disruption but simply equating technological breakthroughs with innovations. This article makes a valuable contribution to innovation studies in the sense that it proposes what it calls a growth model of innovation strategies, which maps out three methods/processes of innovation that can be disruptive, nondisruptive, or a combination of both. Together, these three pathways form a complete picture of how innovations change markets, industries and societies. The authors highlight the nondisruptive part of this model as this is often under-explored or misunderstood (even companies that have successfully achieved nondisruptive creation sometimes call themselves disruptors as they don’t have the right language nor a clear definition of what disruption or nondisruption entails) despite its clear benefits to societies and to micro-level organizations that seek to execute their innovation strategies.
Matt Harvey
Creative destruction is the truth. We have observed and experienced that innovation incessantly destroys old industries and creates new ones. Where is the printing press, horse-drawn carriage or payphone in the street? Now we have printer (even 3D printer!), car (even self-driving), and mobile phone. We all know that is the way society and industry have grown. But I agree with the authors that creation for innovation and growth isn’t necessarily followed by disruption or displacement of existing ones. Creation without disruption or displacement is also the truth. I guess there is nothing new that some industries have been created out of nowhere, without disrupting anything, but nobody coined the term for it.  There are many innovation models – from disruptive to sustaining, incremental or radical – but it didn’t give me a full picture on where innovation (and growth! because there are meaningless/or negative innovations) comes from. Nondisruptive creation for me in that sense lessoned my discomfort toward current obsession to disruption and gave me an insight as to how I find opportunities without focusing on disruption.
Deependra Moitra
Well, this is what happens when academicians get deeply attached to the points of views they espouse that they see the world only through their own lens. Whilst I greatly value the portfolio of frameworks and tools in Blue Ocean Strategy, for Kim and Mauborgne, unfortunately, everything that is successful is "forcibly" attributable to Blue Ocean thinking, like their assumption in this article that all innovation is necessarily disruptive.
Michael Reed
Let's think about this issue in the context of what propels modern society. What did smartphone apps disrupt? Virtually nothing. Did Facebook and other social media disrupt anything? Google arguably crushed some earlier search engines but those were built with crude, immature technology; Google created and owns their own space. 

Even going back in time to the earliest and most significant innovations this pattern holds true. The printing press disrupted, for the most part, nothing besides ignorance. The condensing steam engine disrupted horses walking in circles to pull water up from a well. Even the stocking frame, released in 1589 -- the mechanical loom targeted by Luddites -- only disrupted hand-sewing and created far more jobs than it destroyed. Over four centuries later, hand-crafted fabrics still exist.

Trying to innovate via disruption limits market boundaries. That guarantees a market exists but, by definition, it's a market already dominated by at least one competitor. Because of this, disruption theory postulates an opening for a low-cost good enough solution that improves over time. Sometimes this works. Uber and Airbnb are disruptive, though they allegedly broke a sizable number of laws and regulations getting started. Uber famously had people working on remote desktops so when regulators would raid various offices, a not uncommon occurrence, there was nothing to seize. Wouldn't it be better to skip all that by finding new uncontested market space by the use of nondisruptive innovation?
So many people and goverments think and claim that innovation equals disruption from technical innovation. Professors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, once again, have a fresh view on innovation that clearly will help corporations rethink their innovation resources allocation. Their point of view is well framed and supported by striking examples.
Liam Ross
All medical breakthroughs, x-rays, Viagra, and the rest, can be described as "nondisruptive" because they disrupt nothing except disease. Classifying private student loans to attendees of leading business schools as innovative seems a stretch. The government does not list life coaching, a dubious profession, as "among the fastest growing professions in the U.S."  Here is the list of the fastest growing US professions: 

Solar installer is the fastest growing job in the US with windmill technicians a close second. Home health aids are #3 with personal health aids #4. Bicycle repairers, information security analysts, genetic counselors, and forest fire prevention technicians are all on the list. Many of these occupations are what the authors describe as nondisruptive. All "propel society." Yet not a single one is cited by the authors. 

Besides that the examples are weak the core hypothesis strains under cursory examination. Their assumption is that disruption is a societal ill, a job killer. Let's take a well-known example, coal fired power plants. Donald Trump speaks of an imaginary need to "save coal," presumably for jobs, while ignoring that the two fastest growing job categories in the US, wind and solar, disrupt coal and do so with cleaner, safer alternatives. Shale gas mining is not on the top jobs list but intuitively must be also creating well paying jobs (surely more than "life coaches.") Nobody, except the deluded or dishonest, can argue that coal is better for society than electricity generated by natural gas or renewables. Yet that is the logical conclusion of this article because natural gas and renewables disrupt coal. 

Disruption, the incremental improvement in goods or services with lower priced alternatives articulated by Clayton Christensen, has led to countless improvements in the world. People are living longer, healthier, better educated, and more connected and empowered lives than ever in history thanks to disruption. You are reading this article and these comments due  to a series of disruptive technologies. There's certainly nothing wrong with Cirque du Soleil (though, considering it put Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey out of business, can hardly be classified as nondisruptive), but the circus is not, say, the world wide web. Or broadband internet. Or drought and disease resistant crops, smartphones, or long-range electric cars. Even in the field of entertainment, Cirque du Soleil cannot be compared to the much more disruptive Netflix for impact.
Eugene Ivanov
The article suffers from two serious flaws. First, although it's true that many folks are obsessed with disruption, the myth that innovation must be disruptive seems to exist only in the authors' heads. Those who practice innovation know of and follow the 3-horizon model of it, which doesn't include disruption. From this point of view, I completely agree with FERNANDO VALLEJO who on Feb 22 argued that the proposed nondisruptive creation is just another term for incremental/adjacent innovation postulated by the 3-horizon model.

Second, although it's the authors' right to call disruption whatever they want, it's intellectually dishonest not even to mention the original definition of disruption by Clayton Christensen. According to Christensen, disruptive innovation is not the creation of a new market as the authors claim; disruptive innovation is targeting customers in the EXISTING markets for whom products on the market are either too complicated or too expensive. Again, it's not a sin to argue with Christensen, but using the term disruption without mentioning its origin is mind-boggling.
Gowrishankar Sundararajan
This article is quite eye opening. Disruptive innovation has become a common term in corporate world. Its almost given that innovation needs disruption. In this regard this is quite new and refreshing. 

I think it is established by now that organizations that innovate remain relevant for long time. Often adoption of technology is treated as synonymous to innovation. Its time that innovation is more customer and value driven. 

As I read the article, I think non disruptive innovation would probably create commercial solutions which last long. Organization would probably need a more systematic approach to developing non disruptive innovation. 

I hope SMR follows up on this article with more articles on how organizations can embark on a journey to create non disruptive innovation. Thank You
David Morgan
Governments around the world take note! While it is smart and prudent to encourage IR4.0 and new technology adoption by businesses and entrepreneurs, all too often, governments overwhelmingly support  disruptive innovation efforts that will ultimately cost jobs. How many government-backed entrepreneurship programs, accelerators, funds, etc proudly tout their aims of innovation and disruption for the sake of growth? But growth without job creation is dangerous and costly for any government.   Knowing that 'nondisruptive creation' leads to new markets and businesses without destroying jobs in other businesses, it should be a no-brainer for  governments to support such efforts. Sadly, and to their great risk, too many policymakers have neglected this area of innovation and entrepreneurship, probably because they are unsure how to proceed. I've read the authors book, Blue Ocean Shift, in which they've written about some of their public sector work. I hope that more governments adopt this kind of thinking, and put actionable plans in place to nurture an ecosystem of nondisruptive creation. This is a huge opportunity for any country that embraces it, but an even greater threat if neglected!
Kate Brown
The article is enlightening as I have used to think innovation must be disruptive. This article shows that my thinking was misdirected. Thanks SMR for broadening my horizon on the topics of innovation and growth. Besides, disruption or destruction has a negative connotation which I don't like. I like this article a lot as it is not only hopeful but also it shows how business can be conducted in a harmonious way with the society.
Christopher Sann
Ultimately, the success or failure of even non disruptive innovations is still a function of the culture of innovation that a business, the aggregate curiousity of these businesses, or the innovation acceptance of a whole industry has toward even small advancements in operations or business structure.

Industries like the transportation industry have evolved to have a high level of interest in innovations, while experience based industries like food production and growing have a tendency to have a low tolerance for change and often adhere to methodologies that can date back generations. 

To better understand where an individual business, group of similar experience based businesses, or an industry as a whole falls within this range between high and low acceptance of innovations can be better understood by examining how a targeted business audience could be classified using the innovations characteristics by audience segmention : 'innovator, early adopter, early majority, late majority, and and laggard' ('Diffusion of Innovations' Everett Rodgers is an excellent book on the subject of audience segmentation characteristics)

Finally, cutting edge innovations like the first automobiles, 2,4D weed control in Agriculture, Apple computers, X-rays in medicine, etc. are always highly disruptive and often take decades to reach a sustaining level of interest by innovative audience segments - let alone later acceptance by other segments. But non disruptive innovations are more likely to be operational tweaks within an acceptance dynamic that follows the original disruptive event. And as a result the time to and speed of acceptance is shorter and deeper than its predecessors. With the ultimate success or failure of the innovation often a function of how well the innovation's creators understand which members of an industry are innovators/early adopters and which are not!
Fernando Vallejo
Is not the same as well known incremental/adjacent innovation? Why naming it in a different way?