Disruptive Innovation

The theory of disruptive innovation was first coined by Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen in his research on the disk-drive industry and later popularized by his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, published in 1997.

The theory explains the phenomenon by which an innovation transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo. Initially, a disruptive innovation is formed in a niche market that may appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents, but eventually the new product or idea completely redefines the industry.

A classic example is the personal computer. Prior to its introduction, mainframes and minicomputers were the prevailing products in the computing industry. At a minimum, they were priced around $200,000 and required engineering experience to operate. Apple, one of the pioneers in personal computing, began selling its early computers in the late 1970s and early 1980s—but as a toy for children. At that point, the product wasn’t good enough to compete with the minicomputers, but Apple’s customers didn’t care because they couldn’t afford or use the expensive minicomputers. The inferior computer was much better than their alternative: nothing at all. Little by little, the innovation improved. Within a few years, the smaller, more affordable personal computer became good enough that it could do the work that previously required minicomputers. This created a huge new market and ultimately eliminated the existing industry.

Our work at the Christensen Institute has shown that the principles of disruptive innovation are applicable to the social sector as well. To learn about these disruptions, visit our Health Care and Education pages.

It’s important to remember that disruption is a positive force. Disruptive innovations are not breakthrough technologies that make good products better; rather they are innovations that make products and services more accessible and affordable, thereby making them available to a much larger population.