Review – The Innovator’s Dilemma (#innovation)

Review – The Innovator’s Dilemma (#innovation)

The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business

by Clayton M. Christensen, published 1997

Technological innovation always means change, but which kind?

In the world of business technology, innovation can be thought of as coming in two distinct flavors:

  • sustaining, which are new technologies that improve a product or service in a way that is valuable to existing customers or markets
  • disruptive, which are new technologies that are uncompetitive along traditional performance metrics, which are unusable or undesirable to existing customers or markets but which nonetheless can eventually come to replace the traditional market over time

Throughout history, it is the best-in-class businesses which have the most difficult time with disruptive technologies to the point that disruptive technologies are usually the death knell for the leading businesses at the time. But this raises a question: if they’re such good businesses and they’re so well-managed, how come they can’t manage their way around disruptive technology in their industry?

The answer lies at the heart of what the author refers to as the “innovator’s dilemma”:

the logical, competent decisions of management that are critical to the success of their companies are also the reasons why they lose their positions of leadership

Why do good management teams and competent decision-making processes miss disruptive technologies? Disruptive technologies:

  1. are normally simpler and cheaper, promising lower margins, not greater profits
  2. typically are first commercialized in emerging or insignificant markets
  3. are usually unwanted and unusable to leading firms’ most profitable customers

But good management teams with excellent decision-making processes are fine-tuned to search out:

  1. higher margin opportunities at best, and opportunities with minimum margin requirements based upon their existing cost structure
  2. opportunities that market research and querying of leading customers show there is a present demand for
  3. markets and growth opportunities which can have a significant impact on their business relative to their current scale

In short, every successful firm has a unique “value network” DNA that allows them to be especially dominant within a certain set of competitive circumstances.

the value network — the context within which a firm identifies and responds to customers’ needs, solves problems, procures inputs, reacts to competitors, and strives for profit

But disruptive technologies present a paradigm shift of a market into a completely different “value network” that the firm has not been evolved to survive in which results in, similar to biology, an extinction event for firms with the wrong type of value network DNA.

Crafting a response to disruptive technology

But the reality of disruptive technology is not entirely depressing for successful firms, and they can develop successful strategies for coping with disruptive technologies if they first make themselves aware of the five principles of disruptive innovation:

  1. Companies depend on customers and investors for resources
  2. Small markets don’t solve the growth needs of large companies
  3. Markets that don’t exist can’t be analyzed
  4. An organizations capabilities define its disabilities
  5. Technology supply may not equal market demand

Each of these principles holds within it a potential misstep for successful firms within their traditional value networks trying to respond to a disruptive technology. Because firms depend on their customers (primarily their leading, most profitable customers) and investors for their resources, they are often incentivized to ignore the low margin disruptive technology because their customers initially don’t want it. And because disruptive technologies start in emerging or insignificant markets, successful firms often ignore them in favor of better growth opportunities. Meanwhile, firms that DO try to take disruptive technologies seriously often commit themselves to particular investment and marketing patterns based off of market research for a market that is dynamic and prone to sudden and rapid change. At the same time, that which makes a company excellent at doing A simultaneously makes the company horrible at doing B (where B is the opposite of A), and often disruptive technologies require B responses when successful firms are honed to operate at A. The final frustration for these successful firms occurs when they attempt to enter a disruptive market with a solution that technologically exceeds the needs of its current users, causing them to withdraw in defeat only to watch the market then take off anyway!

An ironic twist

As hinted at above, it is ironic that the very strengths of leading firms in adapting their business to sustaining technologies (improvements in performance in relevant metrics that their best customers demand) are the exact things that cause them to fail to respond to disruptive technologies in a profitable, dominant way. And to make a bad story worse, it is these strengths-as-weaknesses that allow entrants in disruptive technological markets to capture important first-mover advantages for themselves, constructing barriers to entry which are later often insurmountable for established firms.

To a dominant firm, disruptive technology looks like low-margin, small market business that neither their customers nor anyone else seems to be interested in. But for entrants in the disruptive market, with radically different cost structures than dominant firms and with organizational sizes and resources better matched to the opportunities presented, disruptive markets are a wild playground full of unchallenged opportunity.

And while the dominant firms look down at lower-margin, smaller market business and shake their heads dismissively, entrant firms look up above at higher-margin, huge market opportunity and lick their chops. Every business ultimately looks upstream for higher-margin opportunities than the ones they have at present.

Is it any wonder why dominant firms are continually defeated by surprise attacks from below?

How dominant firms can successfully respond to disruptive technology

The position of the dominant firm in the face of disruptive emerging technology is not hopeless. For every yin, there is a yang. By inverting the five principles of disruptive innovation outlined earlier, dominant firms can find five guidelines for successfully responding to disruptive technology:

  1. Give responsibility for disruptive technologies to organizations whose customers need them
  2. Match the size of the organization to the size of the market
  3. Discover new and emerging markets through a flexible commitment to “plans for learning” rather than plans for implementation
  4. Create organizational capabilities and strengths which are complementary to the unique demands of the disruptive market place
  5. Resist the temptation to approach the disruptive technology with the goal of turning it into something existing customers can use, rather than serving the customers unique to the market and searching out new markets entirely


This book was published 15 years ago. The subtitle is, “The revolutionary book that will change the way you do business.” I don’t know if 15 years is long enough in the business world for the ideas of a book like this to be fully adapted into the mainstream but I would guess it is not. I am no business expert but this material was completely uncharted territory for me.

Frankly, I never thought I’d enjoy reading something written by a Harvard business school professor as much as I did with this book. Whereas case studies, quirky charts and statistical evidence usually bore me to the point that I often skip over them, this book was something of a page-turner for me and I found myself eager to find out “what happens next” in each subsequent chapter.

As faddish as it has become as of late to hype the increasingly rapid change of markets and business practices in general, the reality is that most markets don’t change that quickly and most business practices are timeless themselves. But for those unlucky enough to find themselves, suddenly or otherwise, in a market or business that is changing due to disruptive technology, this book could be a lifesaver at a minimum and a handbook for profiting immensely from that change at best.

You can get the essential points of the book entirely from reading my review, or skim-reading the introduction and final chapters of the book (which present a comprehensive summary of the ideas outlined above). But the case studies are invaluable in driving the point home and there are numerous nuances to Christensen’s argument that are worth savoring and considering on their own. Because of this, I unequivocally recommend that every interested reader purchase their own copy and read it in full, and thereby grant themselves an invaluable competitive advantage in the market place, whichever value network they might happen to be competing within.


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