Who cares if it’s disruptive?


May 14, 2013

Last week Innosight Institute became the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. The theory of disruptive innovation has served as the intellectual backbone for the Institute’s practice from the start, but the new name promotes disruption to its rightful place relative to its centrality in our work.

Some may wonder what the big deal is about disruptive innovation. Who cares if an innovation is sustaining or disruptive?

Clayton Christensen explained that good theory can be eminently practical. “The law of gravity, for example, actually is a theory—and it is useful. It allows us to predict that if we step off a cliff, we will fall” (The Innovator’s Solution, p. 12). And so, thankfully, we no longer have to experiment with that particular question. In the education sector, reliable theories that shed light on innovation are more important today than ever because of the sheer pace at which technological innovation is hitting the sector. Billions of dollars are flowing into new solutions for educating the world. A few solid theories to predict what will work sure could come in handy.

The following are three hypothetical scenarios that illustrate how disruptive innovation theory can inform and refine efforts to innovate:

A team of algebra teachers develops a highly interactive algebra textbook and publishes it online. The teachers want to know how to profit from their work. Disruptive innovation theory predicts that the team should turn around and sell its product to an existing leader in the textbook publishing industry. The teachers are unlikely to win a sustaining battle against an American textbook publisher with superior resources and more at stake. To make any money, their best bet is to get ahead of the leaders on the sustaining curve and then sell out quickly. They also could market their book to students in developing countries without access to algebra textbooks.

A wealthy family foundation wants to advance the next generation classroom by funding solutions that optimize learning for each student, rather than perpetuate the factory-style classroom model. Disruptive innovation theory predicts that the foundation’s dollars will do more to transform the traditional classroom if the foundation funds a solution that has the special characteristics of a disruption. It should look for the telltale signs of a disruptive play, including that the strategy targets nonconsumers, meaning people whose alternative to the new solution is nothing; the strategy competes along a new definition of performance, such as simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability; and the model requires less wealth or expertise for the end user to purchase or use. Watch for the paper that Professor Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and I publish in the next few days, which discusses these markers of a disruptive strategy in more detail.

A public school principal wants to improve her school. The district has given her little autonomy, however, over budgetary or staffing decision. Disruptive innovation theory predicts that the principal’s best odds for success are to lead an aggressive strategy of sustaining innovation that improves the performance of her traditional classrooms. A disruptive strategy, which would replace her classrooms with something entirely new, is likely out of reach for this principal because disruption requires significant authority to act autonomously. Nevertheless, thousands of school leaders with little autonomy are deploying technology in ways that bring vital and breakthrough improvements that will sustain their models for years. For example, the principal could learn from the success of schools such as KIPP Empower, Arthur Ashe, and Alliance BLAST, all of which have leveraged the Station Rotation blended-learning innovation to deliver notable improvements.

These three examples are only a few of the many scenarios in which seeing innovation through the right lens can help dictate the most fruitful strategy. When it comes to improving schools, society cannot afford the “let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom” approach. Innovation is not inherently unpredictable. The framework of disruptive and sustaining innovation can help educators make the best decisions for their particular circumstances.

Heather Staker is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute, specializing in K–12 student-centered teaching and blended learning. She is the co-author of "Blended" and "The Blended Workbook." She is the founder and president of Ready to Blend, and has authored six BloomBoard micro-credentials for the “Foundations of Blended Learning” educator micro-endorsement.