Perhaps video didn’t kill the radio star

John Dvorak doesn’t like Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma very much. In fact, he calls it “the biggest crock of the new millennium“, which is pretty damning in a clairvoyant way, considering we still have 996 years to go, and in a temporal way, considering “Innovator’s Dilemma” was published in 1997. His curt behaviour toward disagreeing commentators doesn’t help his case.

James V. McGee suspects Dvorak hasn’t actually read the book, while Corante’s Renee Hopkins Callahan diplomatically suggests that perhaps it’s not the concept he’s against, merely the surrounding hype.

Both take Dvorak to task on his assertion that “there is no such thing as disruptive technology”, which is demonstrably false. Christensen defines disruptive innovations as follows:

  1. They initially appear as inferior alternatives to the current incumbent product or service. This inferiority may be a higher price or poorer performance.
  2. They establish some low-end niche market only slightly related to the disruptee.
  3. Technical or social change begins to negate their inferiority. Price gradually goes down, performance slowly improves.
  4. Suddenly said disruptive technology crosses over and becomes a worthy challenger in the incumbent’s market. At this point, the customer sees the disruptor and disruptee to have feature parity, with the disruptor having greater value.
  5. Disruptee customer demand drops, and the incumbent innovation is wiped out virtually overnight. The requisite companies that refuse to change usually meet the same fate.

Seth Godin sums up disruption as a point where “incremental band aid improvements cease to pay off and instead, wholesale replacement occurs“.

Dvorak uses Linux vs. Microsoft to prove how disruptive technology is hooey; despite Linux’s disruptiveness, he argues, MS is richer and bigger than ever. Which is true, if a bit disengenious; as we all know, the fat lady has yet to sing in that opera.

In hindsight, we can all think of disruptive technologies. Cellphones are killing off landlines, satellite phones and airplane phones. Digital photography made Polaroid extinct overnight. Discount airlines are taking the air travel market by storm.

The innovator’s dilemma is that seldomly do companies see the danger and react before they’re about to be T-boned.

Naturally, disruption truly works when all things are equal. If a product or its management just plain sucks, it will fail no matter what. Ergo, incumbents have used tactics such as aggressive litigation and marketing to kill off smaller disruptive hopefuls.

One thing I do agree, however, is that disruptive innovation is not a cure-all. Business, like dieting, is full of faddish theories. The term will be exploited by marketers to be trendy, by executives to defer accountability for their failures, and by IT pundits like Dvorak and I trying to fill up the Internet.