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 model IIe in the 1980s—but as a toy for children. At that point, the product wasn’t good enough to compete with the minicomputers, but little by little the disruption improved. Within a few years, the smaller, more affordable personal computers surpassed the capability of the minicomputers, creating a huge new market and eliminating 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. In health care, for example, disruptive innovation can be seen in the emergence of retail clinics, such as Walgreen’s TakeCare and CVS’s MinuteClinic. Staffed by nurse practitioners, these facilities enable many people to have access to more affordable, convenient health care. Disruptive innovation is also apparent in the world of higher education and K-12 learning. Online learning is rapidly disrupting our traditional education system. To learn more 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 transform sectors to make products affordable and convenient, thereby making them available to a much larger population.