Disrupt to innovate

Last Updated: Sun, Jan 13, 2013 19:40 hrs

Many organisations tend to walk a safe’ path by plotting their innovation graph as continuous improvement of what they have delivered well. However, this can only lead to slight process or product improvement; it can rarely catapult an organisation to an entirely new league.

When Clayton Christensen first defined disruptive innovation, in his 1997 best-seller The Innovators Dilemma, he referred to it as “disruptive technologies”. Understandably, as most of the changes that we see in our lives today is brought about by the increasing use of technology.

Consider the revolutionary power of the internet, VOIP telephony, reduced health risks with non-invasive surgeries — disruptive innovations continue to change the canvas of human lives. They redefine what we thought we wanted by painting a new shape and form of possibilities.

Innovation’ is the byword of this era. Industries, markets, advertising or art — everybody is out to do something different; to try and leapfrog ahead of competition. However, many organisations tend to walk a safe’ path, by plotting their innovation graph as continuous improvement of what they have delivered well. Now the problem lies in the fact that this can only lead to slight process or product improvement, it can very rarely catapult an organisation to an entirely new league, as a disruptive idea can.

The tremendous pace of change in today’s world needs no emphasis. More disruptive thoughts and solutions are needed to address real-life problems. The winner is not the one who prepares for change, but the one who accelerates to reach it faster and be in a position to define it.

Re-shaping human habits
Seismic shifts in the way humans lived have happened through disruptive innovation. At a time when the world was ridden with oligarchy, Rome disrupted the political thinking with democracy. When the world thought that wars freed countries, Gandhi disrupted with his idea of non-violence. When knowledge was transferred from one guru to a few disciples, Nalanda University introduced organised, large-scale education model. Printing press, steam engines, electronic storage, organised farming, telephones and the internet have all had disruptive impact on the way we lived.

Re-imagining consumer expectations
Disruptive innovations invade a market, and wipe out existing order. Take the example of the now ubiquitous TV. When the concept was first introduced, it turned the idea of visual entertainment on its head. Till then, people were used to flocking to live shows — now this miracle machine beamed music, videos and movies right into their own living rooms. This spelt a completely new set of rules — live shows and acts could no longer succeed by only improving their performance, they had to take into account comfort, convenience, ease of access to cater to this changed audience.

Long-term effects, post tipping point
One challenge that companies often face is that the initial quality of the disruptive innovation may result in limited use, and could be less appealing to established customers. Take the example of digital photography. While it has been tagged as a disruptive technology for a decade now, it took time for large-scale adoption — because it required not just devices that would take digital photos, but also called for a supportive ecosystem. For example, digital photography contests, integration of cameras into mobile phones, increase in instances of citizen journalism, etc.

However, even with gradual adoption, the very advent of this technology spelled doom for photo-film manufacturers. Interestingly, digital as a medium also rode on the new breed of amateur photographers who started exploring their skills, due to the immediate results digital could deliver. That set in motion a phenomenon which couldn’t be reversed. Today, digital is so prevalent that not just photography, even video shoots for documentaries, corporate videos, and low budget movies are all done on digital.

In fact, look at the internet itself — starting as the preserve of the few, it has now spread to all corners of the world, and is now used not just to communicate, but to consume content, discover communities, and even report revolutions. It has disrupted the very way in which mass media operated — two-way communication has become the new order, and other media are now looking at ways to not just deliver, but also interact.

Every disruptive innovation has a tipping point. And once it crosses that, it can effect changes with a broad brush.

Problem of continuing to improve’
Sustained innovation endorses the thought that if we consistently improve what we offer the customer, it will bring about a natural adaptation to changes around. Nothing could be further from the truth, because it doesn’t take into account disruptions which break through suddenly. Like a new technology enabling a new way of life.

Take the advent of mobile telephony and the mobile internet. The entire reality has changed with the mobile explosion we now see in India. Now imagine, if internet companies only focused on improving their PC experiences in a repeatable model, where would they be? A demand for on-the-go consumption doesn’t mean just extending content from a PC mode to a mobile, it actually means building experiences which move seamlessly across screens. It means taking into account how people actually live in the midst of enabling technology and how that may impact business models. And that’s why at Yahoo!, mobile-first is what we aim to achieve for all our properties and services. For example, in the recent coverage of the Olympics, we not only delivered experiences for the PC, tablet and the phone, but also developed a seamless transition from the mobile device to the connected TV.

I didn’t know I wanted it’
Disruptive innovation can delight and win over the consumer, by surprising them with a desire they weren’t yet aware of. The way the iPod swept users off the floor, by redefining the way people listen to music. Remarkably, this wasn’t a user-need per se before it was delivered to them. And no wonder they were thrilled.

What the iPod also did is deliver a punch to conventional wisdom, which dictated that every new version of an electronic item had more features than the previous. This is what continuous improvement meant for device makers, till the iPod proved less is more’, throwing the idea of repeatability out of the window.

Delivering short-cuts; making things cheaper, faster, easier’
Disruptions are built on the “why-not” principle. They aim to deliver a cheaper, faster, easier experience built around an insight into consumers’ lives. For example, printing was once a herculean task requiring days of preparation. Laser printing technology up-ended this. Simple, efficient and handy, it went on to conquer offices, and homes. Grabbing this opportunity, a new set of entrepreneurs were born who offered easy laser printing integrated with quick deliveries.

Leveraging parallel thinking to win the game
Sustained innovation, by its very nature, is limiting because it calls for thinking along a set trajectory. There can be very minor change in direction. But disruptive innovation has no such compulsions. Haven’t we witnessed this in meetings and workshops? Someone surprises us with their different take’ and walks away with the prize. Nothing has more potential than the parallel approach to a set thinking. That’s the kind of surprise that disruptions deliver, and unlock value. While repeatability might work for organisations that are already at a certain level of acceptance and scale, and have propositions geared to delight the customer, the threat of disruptions always looms large. A disruptive innovation has the power to be the David to an established Goliath-like organisation.

With technology continuing to gain importance in our lives, it is imminent that disruptive innovations will gain ground, and keep shaping new business models and products that challenge the status quo and rock the rules of the game. As Thomas Edison once remarked about his laboratory, “There ain’t no rules around here. We’re trying to accomplish something!”.

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