Office Hours, Part III: What Does the Term ‘Disruptive Innovation’ Actually Mean?

Editor’s Note: This is part three of a web series covering our interview with Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen, who published his influential book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” two decades ago. The complete conversation will appear in the Spring 2018 edition of Innovation Leader’s magazine.

In the first part of the interview, IL editor Scott Kirsner posed questions to Christensen that were crowdsourced from Innovation Leader members. In the second part, we continued the conversation, discussing innovation in healthcare and how best to organize R&D teams. Below, Pfizer Senior Director Daniel Seewald asks Christensen about the real meaning of the term “disruption.”

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Scott Kirsner: Dan Seewald, who’s at Pfizer, asks about the word disruption. He says, “The term disruption is being used pervasively by corporate innovators and large companies. Has the term lost its intended meaning, and how can you, how do you reclaim the intention behind the concept of disruption,” or are you not fighting this battle anymore, Clay?

Clay Christensen: No, we’re fighting it every time I give a talk, every time. I offer my course online. A key idea, right in the first session is, what is disruption?

…A disruptive innovation is not an innovation that makes good products better, but rather it makes [something] so much more affordable and accessible that much larger populations of people have access to it.

By using that language, I think it’s helped the problem. That a good product, better, makes it affordable and accessible, so that a whole new population of people have access to it.


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