Mark W. Johnson, co-founder and senior partner at Innosight: You can go to a conference called Disrupt, get a degree in disruption from USC, and the word “disruptive” seems to appear in the mission statement of an accelerating number of startups. At the same time, the backlash against the ubiquity of the term has gotten so bad that there’s now a mobile app that replaces the term on every web page. Indeed, disruption has been so abused and misapplied that it sometimes seems that we’ve forgotten what the original theory of disruptive innovation really was about.
As someone who co-founded a company with Clay Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who introduced the theory of disruptive innovation nearly 20 years ago, I offer a diagnosis and a way to get back to the real roots of the concept. As Professor Christensen says, a disruptive innovation isn’t synonymous with being better than what currently exists. Nor does it mean something that is cooler or faster or based around a more advanced technology or any new technology at all.
Rather, a disruptive innovation is one that “transforms a complicated, expensive product into one that is easier to use or is more affordable than the one most readily available,” according to Christensen. Therefore, you know an innovation is disruptive when a new population has access to products and services that previously were only affordable for the few or the wealthy.
Tesla Motors often gets called disruptive. The company makes innovative cars, for sure, but it isn’t disruptive in the classic sense, as its products are a more expensive alternative that targets people who already have cars. A truly disruptive electric car might look something like a golf cart and be used in new places or by new populations that don’t yet have cars.