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For the past đôi mươi years, the theory of disruptive innovation has been enormously influential in business circles và a powerful tool for predicting which industry entrants will succeed. Unfortunately, the theory has also been widely misunderstood, và the “disruptive” label has been applied too carelessly anytime a market newcomer shakes up well-established incumbents.

In this article, the architect of disruption theory, Clayton M. Christensen, và his coauthors correct some of the misinformation, describe how the thinking on the subject has evolved, and discuss the utility of the theory.

They start by clarifying what classic disruption entails—a small enterprise targeting overlooked customers with a novel but modest offering và gradually moving upmarket khổng lồ challenge the industry leaders. They point out that Uber, commonly hailed as a disrupter, doesn’t actually fit the mold, and they explain that if managers don’t underst& the nuances of disruption theory or apply its tenets correctly, they may not make the right strategic choices. Common mistakes, the authors say, include failing khổng lồ view disruption as a gradual process (which may lead incumbents khổng lồ ignore significant threats) và blindly accepting the “Disrupt or be disrupted” mantra (which may lead incumbents to lớn jeopardize their core business as they try to lớn defend against disruptive sầu competitors).

The authors acknowledge that disruption theory has certain limitations. But they are confident that as research continues, the theory’s explanatory and predictive sầu powers will only improve.


The theory of disruptive innovation, introduced in these pages in 1995, has proved to lớn be a powerful way of thinking about innovation-driven growth. Many leaders of small, entrepreneurial companies praise it as their guiding star; so vì chưng many executives at large, well-established organizations, including Intel, Southern New Hampshire University, và Salesforce.com.

Unfortunately, disruption theory is in danger of becoming a victyên ổn of its own success. Despite broad dissemination, the theory’s core concepts have been widely misunderstood và its basic tenets frequently misapplied. Furthermore, essential refinements in the theory over the past 20 years appear to have been overshadowed by the popularity of the initial formulation. As a result, the theory is sometimes criticized for shortcomings that have sầu already been addressed.

There’s another troubling concern: In our experience, too many people who speak of “disruption” have not read a serious book or article on the subject. Too frequently, they use the term loosely to invoke the concept of innovation in support of whatever it is they wish to lớn bởi. Many researchers, writers, và consultants use “disruptive innovation” lớn describe any situation in which an industry is shaken up & previously successful incumbents stumble. But that’s much too broad a usage.

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The Ubiquitous “Disruptive sầu Innovation”
Disruptive sầu innovation Visual Clayton M. Christensen Michael E. Raynor Rory McDonald

The problem with conflating a disruptive sầu innovation with any breakthrough that changes an industry’s competitive sầu patterns is that different types of innovation require different strategic approaches. To put it another way, the lessons we’ve learned about succeeding as a disruptive sầu innovator (or defending against a disruptive sầu challenger) will not apply lớn every company in a shifting market. If we get sloppy with our labels or fail to lớn integrate insights from subsequent research and experience inlớn the original theory, then managers may over up using the wrong tools for their context, reducing their chances of success. Over time, the theory’s usefulness will be undermined.

This article is part of an effort to lớn capture the state of the art. We begin by exploring the basic tenets of disruptive sầu innovation & examining whether they apply to lớn Uber. Then we point out some comtháng pitfalls in the theory’s application, how these arise, and why correctly using the theory matters. We go on to trace major turning points in the evolution of our thinking & make the case that what we have learned allows us khổng lồ more accurately predict which businesses will grow.


First, a quichồng recap of the idea: “Disruption” describes a process whereby a smaller company with fewer resources is able to successfully challenge established incumbent businesses. Specifically, as incumbents focus on improving their products and services for their most demanding (và usually most profitable) customers, they exceed the needs of some segments & ignore the needs of others. Entrants that prove sầu disruptive begin by successfully targeting those overlooked segments, gaining a foothold by delivering more-suitable functionality—frequently at a lower price. Incumbents, chasing higher profitability in more-demanding segments, tkết thúc not to respond vigorously. Entrants then move upmarket, delivering the performance that incumbents’ mainstream customers require, while preserving the advantages that drove sầu their early success. When mainstream customers start adopting the entrants’ offerings in volume, disruption has occurred.


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Is Uber a Disruptive sầu Innovation?

Let’s consider Uber, the much-feted transportation company whose Smartphone application connects consumers who need rides with drivers who are willing to provide them. Founded in 2009, the company has enjoyed fantastic growth (it operates in hundreds of cities in 60 countries and is still expanding). It has reported tremendous financial success (the most recent funding round implies an enterprise value in the vicinity of $50 billion). And it has spawned a slew of imitators (other start-ups are trying to emulate its “market-making” business model). Uber is clearly transforming the xe taxi business in the United States. But is it disrupting the taxi business?

According to the theory, the answer is no. Uber’s financial và strategic achievements do not qualify the company as genuinely disruptive—although the company is almost always described that way. Here are two reasons why the label doesn’t fit.

Disruptive sầu innovations originate in low-over or new-market footholds.

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Disruptive sầu innovations are made possible because they get started in two types of markets that incumbents overlook. Low-over footholds exist because incumbents typically try to lớn provide their most profitable & demanding customers with ever-improving products and services, and they pay less attention to less-demanding customers. In fact, incumbents’ offerings often overshoot the performance requirements of the latter. This opens the door to a disrupter focused (at first) on providing those low-kết thúc customers with a “good enough” hàng hóa.

In the case of new-market footholds, disrupters create a market where none existed. Put simply, they find a way khổng lồ turn nonconsumers into consumers. For example, in the early days of photocopying technology, Xerox targeted large corporations và charged high prices in order khổng lồ provide the performance that those customers required. School librarians, bowling-league operators, & other small customers, priced out of the market, made bởi with carbon paper or mimeograph machines. Then in the late 1970s, new challengers introduced personal copiers, offering an affordable solution to lớn individuals and small organizations—and a new market was created. From this relatively modest beginning, personal photocopier makers gradually built a major position in the mainstream photocopier market that Xerox valued.

A disruptive innovation, by definition, starts from one of those two footholds. But Uber did not originate in either one. It is difficult lớn clayên ổn that the company found a low-end opportunity: That would have meant taxi service providers had overshot the needs of a material number of customers by making cabs too plentiful, too easy khổng lồ use, & too clean. Neither did Uber primarily target nonconsumers—people who found the existing alternatives so expensive or inconvenient that they took public transit or drove themselves instead: Uber was launched in San Francisco (a well-served xe taxi market), & Uber’s customers were generally people already in the habit of hiring rides.

Uber has quite arguably been increasing total demand—that’s what happens when you develop a better, less-expensive solution khổng lồ a widespread customer need. But disrupters start by appealing to low-end or unserved consumers & then migrate lớn the mainstream market. Uber has gone in exactly the opposite direction: building a position in the mainstream market first & subsequently appealing lớn historically overlooked segments.

Disruptive innovations don’t catch on with mainstream customers until unique catches up lớn their standards.

Disruption theory differentiates disruptive sầu innovations from what are called “sustaining innovations.” The latter make good products better in the eyes of an incumbent’s existing customers: the fifth blade in a razor, the clearer TV picture, better điện thoại phone reception. These improvements can be incremental advances or major breakthroughs, but they all enable firms to lớn sell more products khổng lồ their most profitable customers.

Disruptive sầu innovations, on the other hand, are initially considered inferior by most of an incumbent’s customers. Typically, customers are not willing khổng lồ switch lớn the new offering merely because it is less expensive. Instead, they wait until its chất lượng rises enough to lớn satisfy them. Once that’s happened, they adopt the new product và happily accept its lower price. (This is how disruption drives prices down in a market.)

Most of the elements of Uber’s strategy seem to lớn be sustaining innovations. Uber’s service has rarely been described as inferior to existing taxis; in fact, many would say it is better. Booking a ride requires just a few taps on a smartphone; payment is cashless & convenient; & passengers can rate their rides afterward, which helps ensure high standards. Furthermore, Uber delivers service reliably & punctually, and its pricing is usually competitive with (or lower than) that of established taxi services. And as is typical when incumbents face threats from sustaining innovations, many of the xe taxi companies are motivated to respond. They are deploying competitive sầu technologies, such as hailing apps, & contesting the legality of some of Uber’s services.

Why Getting It Right Matters

Readers may still be wondering, Why does it matter what words we use khổng lồ describe Uber? The company has certainly thrown the taxi industry into lớn disarray: Isn’t that “disruptive” enough? No. Applying the theory correctly is essential khổng lồ realizing its benefits. For example, small competitors that nibble away at the periphery of your business very likely should be ignored—unless they are on a disruptive sầu trajectory, in which case they are a potentially mortal threat. And both of these challenges are fundamentally different from efforts by competitors to woo your bread-and-butter customers.

As the example of Uber shows, identifying true disruptive sầu innovation is tricky. Yet even executives with a good understanding of disruption theory tkết thúc to forget some of its subtler aspects when making strategic decisions. We’ve observed four important points that get overlooked or misunderstood:

1. Disruption is a process.

The term “disruptive innovation” is misleading when it is used lớn refer khổng lồ a product or service at one fixed point, rather than to the evolution of that hàng hóa or service over time. The first minicomputers were disruptive sầu not merely because they were low-end upstarts when they appeared on the scene, nor because they were later heralded as superior to mainframes in many markets; they were disruptive by virtue of the path they followed from the fringe lớn the mainstream.

Most every innovation—disruptive or not—begins life as a small-scale experiment. Disrupters tkết thúc to focus on getting the business model, rather than merely the product, just right. When they succeed, their movement from the fringe (the low over of the market or a new market) lớn the mainstream erodes first the incumbents’ market share và then their profitability. This process can take time, và incumbents can get quite creative sầu in the defense of their established franchises. For example, more than 50 years after the first discount department store was opened, mainstream retail companies still operate their traditional department-store formats. Complete substitution, if it comes at all, may take decades, because the incremental profit from staying with the old Model for one more year trumps proposals khổng lồ write off the assets in one stroke.

The fact that disruption can take time helps khổng lồ explain why incumbents frequently overlook disrupters. For example, when Netflix launched, in 1997, its initial service wasn’t appealing to lớn most of Blockbuster’s customers, who rented movies (typically new releases) on impulse. Netflix had an exclusively online interface và a large inventory of movies, but delivery through the U.S. mail meant selections took several days khổng lồ arrive. The service appealed to lớn only a few customer groups—movie buffs who didn’t care about new releases, early adopters of DVD players, and online shoppers. If Netflix had not eventually begun to serve a broader segment of the market, Blockbuster’s decision lớn ignore this competitor would not have sầu been a strategic blunder: The two companies filled very different needs for their (different) customers.

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