Who coined the term “disruptive innovation”?

Disruptive innovation has been a buzzword widely used in the business world for the past two decades. But what does it really mean, and who came up with this concept? In this blog post, we will explore the origin and evolution of disruptive innovation theory and how it can help us understand and anticipate the dynamics of innovation-driven growth.

The term “disruptive innovation” was coined by Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School, in a 1995 paper titled “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave”. In this paper, Christensen and his co-author Joseph Bower defined disruptive technologies as “technologies that result in worse product performance, at least in the near-term”. They argued that such technologies could create new markets or enter existing markets at the low end and eventually displace established market leaders by offering lower-cost or more convenient solutions. They contrasted disruptive technologies with sustaining technologies, improving product performance along the dimensions of existing customers’ value.

Christensen later refined and popularized his theory in his best-selling book “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail”, published in 1997. In this book, he changed the term “disruptive technology” to “disruptive innovation”, emphasising that it is not the technology that causes disruption but the business model or strategy that leverages it. He also introduced the concept of the “jobs to be done” framework, which suggests that customers hire products or services to fulfil specific needs or tasks. He argued that disruptive innovators succeed by identifying and addressing nonconsumption or overserved market segments where customers have unmet or underappreciated jobs to be done.

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Since then, Christensen and his collaborators have expanded and applied his theory to various domains, such as health care, education, social entrepreneurship, and media. He also co-founded Innosight, a consulting firm that helps organizations create and execute growth strategies based on disruptive innovation principles. He continued to write and speak about disruptive innovation until he died in 2020.

Disruptive innovation theory has been influential and controversial in equal measure. It has been praised as a powerful tool for predicting and explaining industry transformations and a source of inspiration and guidance for entrepreneurs and innovators. It has also been criticized for being vague, oversimplified, hindsight-biased, or misused. Some scholars have challenged its empirical validity, theoretical consistency, or normative implications. Others have proposed alternative or complementary perspectives on innovation and competition.

Despite its limitations and critiques, disruptive innovation theory remains a relevant and useful framework for understanding how markets change and how incumbents can respond. It helps us to recognize the potential of new entrants or low-end offerings that may initially seem inferior or irrelevant. It also challenges us to question our assumptions and biases about what customers want and how they behave. It encourages us to embrace uncertainty and experimentation and seek opportunities to create value in novel ways.

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