The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail [Speed Summary]

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Clayton M. Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma is a bestselling innovation classic on disruptive innovation, perhaps the innovation classic tout court – receiving universal acclaim and dubbed “a masterpiece…The most profound and useful business book ever written about innovation.”

It’s also the only business book on Steve Jobs list of favourite books – and one that “deeply influenced” the late Apple CEO. It is a book about, among other things, how listening to your consumer can be bad for innovation.

The Dilemma

The dilemma in the Innovator’s Dilemma is simple; Innovations that satisfy a brand’s need for growth require taking risks that are unacceptable to that brand. Innovation, or at least disruptive innovation – the kind that drives growth – requires vision, nerve and patience. And most brands don’t have these qualities; driven by quarterly results, most brands will eschew long-term growth for short-term profitability.

For big brands, the problem is worse – growth opportunities typically lie in small new market niches that have yet to flourish, not in mature stable markets. But these niches typically get overlooked by large brands and dismissed as not sizeable enough. How many brands would have invested in the small, nascent energy drink market niche with a product that tested so poorly that the research concluded “No other product has ever failed this convincingly”? Red Bull did, but only by ignoring consumer research and betting on a vision of how the world should be, not how it is.

A Faster Horse

Indeed, from an FMCG point of view, the Innovator’s Dilemma comes down to this quote (mis)-attributed to Henry Ford: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.

Big brands typically need a big tick in the box from lots of consumers before they will commit to an innovation; but getting that big tick comes at the expense of big growth. The result? It is the new entrants, the start-ups and the entrepreneurs that grow through innovation, not big brands or organisations.

Of course, there are exceptions. Big brands can do disruptive innovation, but only by behaving like start-ups driven vision rather than research. When Nintendo came out with its blockbuster Wii gaming platform, the marketing director proudly claimed “We don’t use consumer focus groups. We got a lot of feedback from developers in the industry.”

Steve Jobs attributed the Apple turnaround to a similar ethic – stop pandering to what consumers think and say they want and build insanely great products with passionate professionals who have a shared vision of how the world should be, not how it is. BBC’s Lord Reith summed up the attitude succinctly – the goal of the BBC is “to give the public something slightly better than they think they want”.

Disruptive Technology & Product-Led Innovation

So how do big brands solve the Innovator’s Dilemma – the need for growth that comes only with disruptive innovation, but when they only have the risk-appetite for ‘sustaining innovation’?

Following in the footsteps of Karl Marx and Marshall McLuhan (via Thornstein Veblen and John Dewey), Christensen is a technological determinist believing that it is technology that drives and disrupts culture – including consumer behaviour and business – and not the other way around.  Technology in this sense, is not about gadgets, it is about any new tools offering new functionality, reliability, convenience and cost efficiencies.  The opportunity for brands is to identify and harness new disruptive technologies with the capacity to create value for the business and the consumer. Christensen illustrates the point by showing how ‘technology’ has disrupted everything from discount retail to ink jet printers software and consumer healthcare.

 “The Handmill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist” Karl Marx

Ultimately, Christensen’s solution for brands and businesses is as simple as the Innovator’s Dilemma itself.  Find people for products, not products for people. But not just any products, find products built on new disruptive technology that offers new value in terms of functionality, reliability, convenience or price.  In other words – don’t start by identifying a market need and then build a product to meet that need. Instead, identify a new technology that has the potential to disrupt a category, or is already disrupting a category or parallel category and build a product based on that technology.  Then, when you have the new product, find a new growing niche to market to, avoiding the cluttered mass in the middle.

Disruptive Technology + New Growing Niche = Growth by Innovation

For many brands, switching from an insight-led to a product-led start-point for innovation will be alien: The Innovator’s Dilemma outlines three solutions for delivering disruptive product-led innovation designed to drive growth:

  1. Acquisition: Acquire brands that already harness disruptive technology
  2. Internal Development: Develop new in-house priorities and capabilities based on spotting and harnessing new disruptive technologies
  3. Spin-off: Hive off a unit to work independently on how a disruptive technology can be used for brand innovation

The BG Take

As a product concept development agency for large consumer brands, The Innovator’s Dilemma poses a challenge to Brand Genetics; it would suggest that our consumer insight-led approach to innovation is unlikely to deliver disruptive innovation concepts. At best we simply add to the clutter around known needs, and fight for share of wallet in the fat middle of consumer society – more packaging, pack-size and flavour variants in our world of FMCG.


Whilst we agree that we agree that the opportunity space for brands is likely to be found in new technology and new niches rather than new interpretations of what’s going on in consumers’ heads – we believe there is a role for consumer insight in framing the concept development task.  Specifically, we think it is useful to understand ‘technology dynamics’ of a segment, specifically, why people have adopted or rejected new technologies in a category.  This helps us identify the critical success factors for deploying new disruptive technology.  For this kind of insight task, it is key to ask the right consumers – the early adopters – those who base their choices on functionality;

  • Early Adopters are the first set of users, who base their choice on functionality.
  • Early Majority customers enter the picture when the demand for functionality in the mainstream market has been met and the vendors start addressing the need for reliability.
  • Late Majority customers are pulled in, when the basis of innovation and competition shifts to convenience.
  • Laggards enter the market when commoditisation has happened and competition focuses on price

Steve Jobs might well be right when he said “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” But by developing concepts that use disruptive technology with and for early adopters, we at least innovate for the people who will be the first to adopt our innovations.


Paul Marsden

All stories by: Paul Marsden
  • Moona Liza

    This is one of the best books on innovation in the last 20 years. I read it in 2000 and still refer to it. Christensen’s core insight/argument is that businesses fight shy of developing innovations that will 1: produce limit profits initially; 2: cannibalise core, high cashflow/profit lines. But that what look like niche technologies – Winchester drives, hydraulic backhoes, etc – improve in capability, reliability and reduce in price to the point that they entirely cannibalise the existing market, leaving the established players high and dry, with no new product lines. (In a way he is reposing the falling rate of profit thesis.) He suggests some rather less convincing solutions in the book, and expounded further in The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth. I would argue that Apple presents an interesting solution to this challenge, with its creation of new product lines that complement and build on – but, largely, don’t cannibalise – its existing product lines.

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