Product Strategy

Disruptive Innovation

What is Disruptive Innovation?
Definition of Disruptive Innovation
Disruptive innovation transforms industries through convenient, affordable alternatives targeting underserved market segments leveraging enabling technologies that incumbents initially ignore defending higher margin customers until saturated. This allows disruptor's progressively up-market capabilities eventually preferred by majority customers as incumbents struggle adapting too late.

Disruptive Innovation, a term coined by Clayton M. Christensen in his 1997 book 'The Innovator's Dilemma', refers to a process by which a product or service takes root initially at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors. This concept has become a cornerstone in the field of product management and operations, shaping strategies and influencing decision-making processes.

The essence of disruptive innovation lies in its transformative power, the ability to change not just products, but entire markets and industries. It's a concept that goes beyond mere product development, encompassing aspects of operations, marketing, and strategic planning. This article will delve into the intricacies of disruptive innovation, exploring its definition, implications, and applications in the realm of product management and operations.

Disruptive Innovation: An Overview

Disruptive Innovation is a term that describes a process in which a smaller company with fewer resources is able to successfully challenge established incumbent businesses. It is characterized by the introduction of a product or service that may not initially meet the needs of existing customers of the incumbent. These products are typically simpler, more convenient, and less expensive, and they appeal to a new or unexploited customer segment.

Over time, the disruptive product or service improves to attract more and more of the incumbent's customers, eventually leading to the incumbent's decline or even extinction. The key to disruptive innovation is the gradual movement from niche market segments to mainstream markets, driven by technological or business model advancements.

Types of Disruptive Innovation

There are two main types of disruptive innovation: low-end and new-market. Low-end disruption occurs when the disruptor offers a product or service with a lower performance that incumbent's mainstream customers are willing to accept, coupled with a significantly lower price. New-market disruption, on the other hand, occurs when the disruptor targets non-consumption, creating a new market where none existed before.

While both types of disruptive innovation involve a process of starting from the lower tiers of the market and moving upwards, they differ in their approach and the nature of the market disruption they cause. Understanding the type of disruption at play is crucial for incumbents to respond effectively and for disruptors to strategize their market penetration and growth.

Role of Disruptive Innovation in Product Management

Product management is at the heart of bringing disruptive innovations to life. It involves understanding customer needs, market dynamics, and technological advancements, and then synthesizing this understanding into a product strategy and roadmap. Disruptive innovation plays a key role in shaping this strategy and roadmap, as it provides a framework for identifying opportunities for creating new value in the market.

Product managers who understand and apply the principles of disruptive innovation can guide their teams to focus on creating products that not only meet customer needs but also have the potential to transform markets. This involves a deep understanding of the customer, a willingness to take calculated risks, and the ability to pivot and adapt as the product and market evolve.

Identifying Opportunities for Disruption

One of the key responsibilities of a product manager is to identify opportunities for disruption. This involves analyzing the market to identify underserved or unserved customer segments, understanding their needs, and then developing a product strategy to meet these needs in a way that is different from the incumbents. This requires a deep understanding of the customer, the market, and the technological landscape.

Product managers can use a variety of tools and frameworks to identify opportunities for disruption, including the Jobs-to-be-Done framework, the Value Curve Analysis, and the Disruptive Innovation Theory itself. These tools can help product managers identify gaps in the market, understand customer needs and desires, and develop a product strategy that has the potential to disrupt the market.

Developing a Disruptive Product Strategy

Once an opportunity for disruption has been identified, the next step is to develop a disruptive product strategy. This involves defining the product vision, setting strategic objectives, and developing a product roadmap that aligns with these objectives. The product strategy should be customer-centric, focusing on creating new value for the customer, and it should be flexible enough to adapt as the market and customer needs evolve.

A disruptive product strategy often involves taking calculated risks, as it requires challenging the status quo and introducing new ways of doing things. However, these risks can be mitigated through a process of continuous learning and adaptation, which involves testing assumptions, gathering feedback, and iterating on the product based on this feedback.

Role of Disruptive Innovation in Operations

Disruptive innovation not only influences the product strategy but also has significant implications for operations. It can lead to changes in the way companies operate, including their processes, systems, and organizational structures. These changes are often necessary to support the disruptive product strategy and to enable the company to effectively compete in the new market conditions created by the disruption.

Operations management involves planning, organizing, and supervising production, manufacturing, or the provision of services. In the context of disruptive innovation, operations management plays a key role in ensuring that the company can deliver the disruptive product or service efficiently and effectively, while also adapting to the changing market conditions.

Adapting Operations to Support Disruption

When a company pursues a disruptive innovation strategy, it often needs to adapt its operations to support this strategy. This could involve changes in the production process, the supply chain, the organizational structure, or the company's systems and processes. The goal is to create an operational environment that enables the company to deliver the disruptive product or service efficiently and effectively.

For example, a company that is introducing a disruptive product may need to develop new production processes, establish new supplier relationships, or even restructure its organization to support the new product. These changes can be challenging, but they are often necessary to ensure the success of the disruptive innovation.

Managing Operational Risks

Disruptive innovation can also introduce new operational risks. These could include risks related to the production process, supply chain, regulatory compliance, or customer service. Managing these risks is a critical aspect of operations management in the context of disruptive innovation.

Companies can manage these risks by implementing robust risk management processes, which involve identifying potential risks, assessing their impact, developing mitigation strategies, and monitoring the effectiveness of these strategies. By effectively managing operational risks, companies can increase their chances of successfully implementing their disruptive innovation strategy.

Examples of Disruptive Innovation in Product Management and Operations

There are numerous examples of disruptive innovation in the field of product management and operations. These examples provide valuable insights into how disruptive innovation can transform markets and create new opportunities for growth.

One of the most well-known examples of disruptive innovation is the introduction of the personal computer by Apple. The personal computer was a disruptive innovation because it was simpler, more convenient, and less expensive than the mainframe computers that were prevalent at the time. It initially appealed to a new customer segment - individuals and small businesses - and over time, it improved to attract more and more of the mainstream market, eventually leading to the decline of the mainframe computer market.

Netflix: Disrupting the Video Rental Market

Netflix is another example of a company that used disruptive innovation to transform the video rental market. Netflix started by offering a DVD-by-mail service, which was a new and convenient way for customers to rent movies. This service appealed to a new customer segment that was underserved by the traditional video rental stores.

Over time, Netflix improved its service by introducing online streaming, which further increased the convenience for customers. This led to a significant shift in the video rental market, with many traditional video rental stores going out of business. Netflix's disruptive innovation was not just in its product, but also in its operations, as it developed a highly efficient distribution system to support its DVD-by-mail service and later its streaming service.

Uber: Disrupting the Taxi Industry

Uber is a classic example of disruptive innovation in the taxi industry. Uber introduced a mobile app that made it easy for customers to hail a ride from anywhere, at any time. This was a new and convenient way to get a ride, and it appealed to a new customer segment that was underserved by the traditional taxi services.

Over time, Uber improved its service by introducing features like ride tracking, fare estimation, and cashless payments, which further increased the convenience for customers. This led to a significant shift in the taxi industry, with many traditional taxi services struggling to compete. Uber's disruptive innovation was not just in its product, but also in its operations, as it developed a platform-based business model that allowed it to scale rapidly and efficiently.


Disruptive innovation is a powerful concept that can transform markets and create new opportunities for growth. It plays a key role in product management and operations, influencing product strategies, operational processes, and organizational structures. By understanding and applying the principles of disruptive innovation, companies can identify opportunities for disruption, develop disruptive product strategies, adapt their operations to support these strategies, and manage the risks associated with disruption.

While disruptive innovation involves challenges and risks, it also offers significant rewards for those who can successfully navigate its complexities. It is a journey of continuous learning and adaptation, and those who embark on this journey can shape the future of their markets and industries.