• Jonas S. Müller

What Is a Disruption?

Updated: Mar 28

Nowadays, everyone is talking about disruption. Disruption has become a buzzword for companies, products, and especially start-ups that wants to be seen as the new up and coming firm shaping our future. But what is the fuss all about, and what is actually a disruption?

Prof. Christensen’s starting point on disruption

It all started in 1997 with the theory of the so-called Innovator’s Dilemma. Business Harvard School Professor Christensen wondered why great companies keep failing. So, he studied the cases of why former industry leaders fall down and found the following pattern.

Companies constantly improve their products and end in over-performance

In his theory established companies (incumbents) improve their products by adding new features and enhancing performance through sustaining innovations. The process of constant product improvement ends in over-performance - by offering features the mainstream does not want to pay for anymore.

Even though customers want better products over time, established companies are way faster in developing their products than customers in growing their exptectations. Businesses tend to to hassle to offer better products and earn more and are over pace what is actually needed by customers. In the end, established companies are offering a fancy product that most people do not (necessarily) need. They do not need these new decorative features or the let's call it premium product performance.

Disruptive companies go into these niche and offer products that meet the customers requirements for lower costs

While the incumbent (e.g. market leader) steadily increases its product performance, a new company launches a innovative product to customers in the low-end segment (or at a niche segment). The disruptive company improves its new product over time and at one point meets the demand of the mainstream. Now the disruptive company satisfies the demand of the mainstream customers for a lower price than the former great company does and it simply takes over most customers of the incumbent.

Innovator’s Dilemma by Christensen

What are disruptive companies? Innovator’s dilemma by Christensen

Source: adapted from Christensen (1997) or Christensen et al. (2015)

What is the so called investor's dilemma for established companies?

By pursuing perfection and improving their products, the established companies open the possibility to outrun the market and getting disrupted

Established companies (incumbents) do basically everything what they are supposed to, they frequently improve their products (sustainable innovations), they focus on the more profitable high-end customer segment, and they increase profitability by offering appealing features and thereby collecting higher prices. But by pursuing perfection and following the business textbook by conducting sustainable innovations of their products, the established companies open the possibility of getting disrupted by an (at first) inferior company in the first place and when the established company outruns the mainstream market, the disruptive company can fill this gap.

By being successful, companies are too concentrated in their current core business and too confident or even cocky. They do not consider new entrants in the low-end market as a potential threat. Also, they are too comfortable with their current success that they have no urge to think about creating something new (that might cannibalize their successful products or even could disrupt their current business model) or change their current strategic path. Or differently phrased

today's success is the enemy of tomorrow's success

Competition as an accelerator to outrun the market

Another reason why incumbents constantly improve their proposition lies in the competition as competition can push companies to constantly improving their product. For instance, being hustled by Samsung and other rivals, Apple has no other choice than to develop its products by its design, features, and brand image and thereby outruns the mainstream market.

What is meant by disruption?

Christensen’s theory started a discussion about disruption and about which company is actually disruptive and which is not. Many authors consider more companies as disruptive than Christensen does. For Christensen, a company is only disruptive when it fits into his model. Other authors extend the definition of disruptive companies to everything that disrupts existing companies.

For example, for Christensen Tesla is not a disruptive company because Tesla started at the high-end customer segment and not at the low-end (where a disruption should start according to his model). On the contrary, many others consider Tesla as a disruption.

The same applies to Uber. Uber also did not start at the low-end market, and neither did taxis overperform (Taxis did not increase the performance of their products over time, or at least not a lot). So, Uber is for Christensen not a disruptive company, whereas for most authors and especially most people who talk about disruptions Uber is disruptive.

Notably, there is no consistent definition. However, the most significant and agreeable characteristics for a disruption are

What is a disruption?

  • Disruption is a process

Disruption does not happen from one day to another but is a long term process

  • The competition distinguishes from the usual competition

Because after a disruption took place the new competitors have different products with different selling propositions and therefore the competition is different than if the competitors have the same product just with a different brand and slightly different features

  • A disruptive company often creates a function in a new manner

E.g., Apple created a new function with the iPhone, now having touchscreen and apps

  • A disruptive company usually has new components in the proposition to the customers

E. g. in the case of digital cameras. In the beginning, digital cameras had worse photo quality than conventional cameras. But the new component of being able to save and send photos made the new technology more popular despite the worse photo quality.

  • Disruptive companies have a different business model

Having a different business model allows disruptive companies to have lower costs or to offer a different, innovative proposition to customers

That companies struggle in regular competition, does not mean they are getting disrupted!

Since disruption became such a fuzzy buzzword in the business world, it is important to know what is meant in the particular context: whether it refers to Christensen’s model or another broader definition. Possibly, sometimes when the word disruption is used, it does not mean an actual disruption since, to be a disruption, there has to be an existing company that actually gets disrupted.

Digital transformation vs. digital disruption

Business modeling and especially digital technologies are taking a remarkable role in disruptions, nowadays. Digital technology provides many opportunities for how to change things. Digital technology serves as a basis for future disruptive companies to utilize leaner business processes or to offer new products, respectively, services that have the potential to disrupt established companies. However, not every new digital company, business model, or product has the possibility of being disruptive even though it might change how things are done, simply because they do not disrupt another company. That is why it is important to know the difference between digital disruption and digital transformation.

Digital disruption

  • Another company or industry gets disrupted

  • By a new proposition that is more appealing to the customers

  • Driven by digital technology

  • Changes the „game”, industry, competition

  • E.g., Netflix disrupted Blockbuster

Digital transformation

  • Organizations adapt their processes, applications, infrastructure, etc. to the new digital age (change process)

  • Companies are still in the conventional competition (but they can generate advantages)

  • Could trigger disruptions

  • E.g., data analytics in marketing or internet of things in production

Digital transformation vs. digital disruption
The digital pyramid

Digitalization is the basis for digital transformation. The digital transformation will lead us to the new digital age by including digital processes, applications, and so on everywhere in the business world whereas digital disruption is something more than just changing how things are done. Disruptive companies create an innovative proposition that will, by time, attract the mainstream customer and then disrupt the established companies and hence change the industry. At digital transformation, on the other hand, companies might get a disadvantage at acting too late to prepare for the digital age. However, that companies struggle in regular competition for example by acting too late and too slow to transform the company digitally, does not mean they are getting disrupted!

Read about how to avoid getting disrupted here!