06.19 2014

Disruptive innovation: myth or reality?

If disruption is real for innovative industrial companies that are changing their models, this is not necessarily the case for their users. Think about it: can you provide one example of innovation that emerged truly from nowhere and radically altered peoples’ habits?

When Gutenberg invented the printing press in the fifteenth century, he aggregated three elements: paper, which came from China two centuries before; the press of winemakers and artisans, which he perfected; and lead typefaces, the alloy of which he, as a goldsmith, improved. Gutenberg revolutionized the production of the written word. In so doing, he accelerated the dissemination of ideas, and yet, he did not break the behavior of reading. The invention of the printing press was a disruptive innovation for the monks but not for the faithful readers of the Bible.

From the point of view of a company, innovation can be disruptive. When a business model no longer works, it is obviously strategic to change it. Though beneficial over the long term, this transformation can be tumultuous. The implementation of innovation can be a painful process, for employees and managers alike. The disruption is imposed by the evolution of the competitive, social, economic or environmental environment. It is not chosen. Who would consciously decide to experience a rupture?

From the point of view of users, customers, and citizens, evolution is only ever chosen, and therefore more gentle. Innovations are adopted when they improve the existing situation: providing more comfort, more speed, more fun than the original behavior. The natural laziness of man means that one does not ask for radical changes. While over time, practices are profoundly changing, in the current moment, they are developing only gradually. In this way, the disruption seen in industry is actually a logical continuity between forms of usages as they naturally evolve.

As in the natural world, innovation is the result of a slow evolution. There is a true genealogy of usages. Jean-François Bassereau has clearly shown it for products, and it is the same for usages: each "family" of usages is born of "parent" usages. They are similar to or influence the newborn usage. Just as no new species appear in the wild from nothing, there is no usage appearing in peoples lives that is not the "child" of previous habits. When the tablet appeared, it was a new archetype for Apple's competitors. For its users, however, it was accepted with seamless continuity because the tablet is the child of two existing usages: its father is the use of the computer and its mother is the habit of mobility. Combining the two, we see new usages emerge – the need to carry a computer into the kitchen, for example, to test out a new recipe.

For companies, “Schumpeter’s gale" of creation is destructive. So rather than launching brutal innovation when it is too late, it is better to anticipate forthcoming usages and organize structurally in such a way as to continually create soft innovations. Chinese doctors know that operations are violent. They prefer to prevent disease by prescribing health changes, through diet and physical activity, for example. For companies, the most painless innovation strategy is to constantly anticipate its future clients’ usages. The best technique, to my knowledge, is to approach it through ethnographic observations of usages and their transformations, as do the Chinese doctors who observe their patients. Anticipation allows a company to regularly change a business offer, in a progressive and robust manner in order to ensure the production of sustainable results.

Some struggling companies are dreaming of the paradise that would be a disruptive innovation. The effect of the announcement would be striking, but this disruption comes with social and economic costs. However, it is not necessary to hurt oneself to succeed in one’s transformation! Successful innovation is the antithesis of a brutal rupture, it settles in naturally, step by step, year after year. Salvation will not come from making the news; it will come from healthy measures of anticipation.

On your side, do you think that real disruptive innovations exist? In nature, for example? Is innovation luck or fate?

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