Is Disruptive Innovation Radical?

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Is Disruptive Innovation Radical?
Rick Mueller, Student (University), United States

Disruptive Innovation is often incorrectly described as a radical rather than incremental change in technology. In fact, one of the fundamental elements of Christensen’s work was to illustrate that market incumbents rather than entrants are mainly responsible for radical improvements in product performance via the integration of expensive and complex technology.

To understand disruptive innovation more effectively, I’d like to suggest thinking of it more as radical potential for growth (vs. incremental potential for growth).

To view it another way, sustaining (non-disruptive) innovation is always grounded in and thus constrained by an existing paradigm - whereas disruptive innovation is not. And all other things being equal, the potential for growth of an unconstrained concept will always exceed that of one which is constrained.

The point here is that RADICAL VERSUS INCREMENTAL is a valid construct to use in describing disruptive innovation, but more so in the sense of OPPORTUNITY FOR GROWTH than in terms of the TECHNOLOGY EMPLOYED.


Disruptive versus Radical Innovation: Dominant Design
William Miller, Consultant, United States
To adequately understand either disruptive or radical innovation, the concept of Dominant Design (DD) that governs the design paradigm in a market or industry must be understood and applied.
Dominant Design has 3 parts:
  1. CAPABILITIES (knowledge, tools/products, technology and processes)
  3. MARKET OR INDUSTRY STRUCTURE including supply chains and distribution channels
A radical innovation that transforms a market or industry such as the automobile did with personal transportation in replacing the horse creates a new dominant design. You can also explain disruptive innovation with mini-mills in the steel industry by seeing that only one part of the dominant design (DD) was changed as capability but not business model or industry structure. When Apple developed the iPhone it created a new DD for the cell phone industry by changing all 3 parts. Fedex created a new DD to change package delivery services.

What is a Dominant Design
Jaap de Jonge, Editor, Netherlands
@William Miller: thanks, interesting… I looked up two definitions of dominant design (Utterback). In innovation, a dominant design is:
- 'The most commonly used configuration for serving a purpose by using technology' (Abernathy and Utterback 1978).
- 'The dominant design in a product class is, by definition, the one that wins the allegiance of the market place, the one that competitors and innovators must adhere to if they hope to command significant market following’ (Utterback, 1995).
It’s interesting to see that in his second, later, definition technology is no longer part of the definition and apparently not an essential, necessary component of DD. Although Utterback argues that a new DD is often preceded by the arrival of a new technology.

What is a Dominant Design
William Miller, Consultant, United States
Jim Utterback agrees that the definition of a dominant design (DD) that I described (with 3 parts) replaces his earlier definitions because it more accurately describes both incremental and radical innovation such as the cases I mentioned. The DD I described is part of the fourth generation (4G) of innovation management to emerge since 1900. The earlier definitions of DD are part of the third generation (3G). Innovation management has changed in a similar manner to other disciplines such as manufacturing which adopted lean production in 3G.

Are Utterback’s 3 Parts of Dominant Design Mandatory?
Jaap de Jonge, Editor, Netherlands
@William Miller: Thanks for your further explanation. Does Utterback consider the 3 parts as mandatory criteria (each one has to be present to speak of a DD) or are these rather descriptive criteria (they explain how a DD can be achieved, but not all of them have to be present in each case of a DD)?

Are Utterback's 3 Parts of Dominant Design Mandatory?
William Miller, Consultant, United States
The 3 parts in a dominant design definition were authored by Bill Miller, not Utterback.
However, Utterback agrees that all 3 parts are MANDATORY to describe each case of a dominant design.
Capability is defined as people with knowledge, tools/products, technology and processes. Tools include capital, buildings, and other things such as brands. Capability is structured with architectures into "stacks" with layers (services, applications, products/tools, platforms, components, technologies. Each layer has knowledge and processes associated with it.
Layers are linked together to form business models and industry structures.
Dominant designs and capabilities are elements of the fourth generation of innovation management which has 12 principles and associated practices.

What of the Evolution of Disk Drives?
Rick Mueller, Student (University), United States
Christensen used the evolution of disk drives as his primary and foundational example of Disruptive Innovation. He clearly notes that the primary technical change that correlated with the disruption of incumbents in that industry was the change in the size of the drive. At the same time, he notes that not all changes in drive size led to disruption - each of the changes from 12" to 8" to 5" to 3.5" precipitated a disruption of the prior incumbent, but the change from 3.5" to 2.5" did not. Given that all hard disk drives in question during this period were based on the same general technology (spinning platters covered with magnetic material which were written to and read through inductive modulation) - how would the concept of dominant design as you've defined it apply?


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Rick Mueller
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