Sustaining or Disruptive Innovation? Depends on your Point of View

“If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” – Henry Ford

One of the generally accepted views on innovation is that, at the most basic level, there are two types: sustaining innovation which incrementally improves what currently is and disruptive innovation that shifts the paradigm of what can be. Clayton Christensen observed and codified the latter, with the terrific insight that a product/service is disruptive because it actually underperforms against current standards but offers something completely new that was previously impossible – for instance, a music player might have mediocre sound quality (which was of utmost importance) but can compress songs so that you can have your entire music library with you at all times (which becomes of utmost importance). He then went on to describe what he calls the “innovator’s dilemma” – the more closely you listen to your customers, the more likely you are to hear about small improvements they want for existing products and services. Meanwhile, someone else – generally a smaller, more agile firm – is thinking up something your customers don’t yet know they need and this disruptive innovation might well put you out of business – it will soon offer superior performance for the old criterion (sound quality) and the new one (storage capacity).

Put this way, it seems relatively clear: sustaining incrementally improves and disruptive opens up completely new possibilities and responds to latent, unknown, or unarticulated customer needs. However, whether a new product, service, environment, or organization is disruptive, depends more on your point of view: ideas that can seem like just a small progression taking a long view of history can, from the point of view of those using them, can seem truly revolutionary. So, going back to the example above, you can think about an iPod as nothing more than a Sony Walkman with an improved storage medium (mp3 files on a hard drive instead of cassette tapes and mini-discs) or as a paradigm-shift now that you can have “thousands of songs in your pocket.”

Here is a table with some quick comparisons (suggested additions welcome). From this, it seems like the user-centered perspective yields the disruptive label and the historicist view yields the sustaining label – if you take a long enough view, you can make a case that everything is a sustaining innovation, merely an improvement on what came before.

Disruptive Innovation Sustaining antecedent(s)
Apple iPad (new interface and software for accessing – and to some existing editing and authoring – media) Tablet computer (and e-readers, multi-touch interfaces, iPhone, etc)
Kindle (new reading device and storage medium) E-readers (and other devices for visually impaired), not to mention, good old books
iPod (portable music player enabling you to have “thousands of songs in your pocket”) Walkman, Mini-disc players, Portable radios, etc
Automobile (personal powered transportation with reduced infrastructure requirements) Horses (and a series of other inventions – combustion engine, vulcanized rubber, etc)

Just as the sustaining vs. disruptive label is not as clear-cut, neither is the case for or against listening to customers. From Ford’s quote and Don Norman’s experience, disruptive innovations come from new technologies that open up new possibilities for their users, possibilities that would not have arisen from asking them. Though current discussions about design research tend over-emphasize what can come from observations and ethnographic research (e.g.: if we just look hard and creatively enough, we can end all famine), there is a case to be made that when the listening/observing/design research is itself disruptive, it can open up new possibilities and uncover insights that can lead to paradigm-shifting, world-changing products, services, and spaces. More to come on “disruptive design research”…