|The Innovator’s Solution tells you what you need to do to cannibalize the markets of incumbents and create entirely new markets, by focusing on the needs of over-served customers and non-customers. But it’s a lot harder in practice than in theory, and it needs some unique skills and hard-to-obtain knowledge.
[Posted from Orlando]
In previous articles, I’ve summarized Clay Christensen’s approach to innovation (established companies focus on what he calls ‘sustaining’ innovations while new entrants focus on ‘disruptive’ ones), and about the research approach that he suggests for identifying and assessing innovation opportunities.
His second book, The Innovator’s Solution, looks in greater detail at disruptive innovation, which he breaks into two types:
The part of Innovator’s Solution that most intrigued me was the section on how to identify potential disruptions and how to identify customers for them. To identify potential disruptions, he suggests, you should ‘segment’ the market by the circumstances of use of the product or potential product (i.e. what the product gets ‘hired to do’ or what ‘job it does’ that needs to be done), rather than by customer identity (demographics) or product attributes (category). The focus is therefore on when/why/how it would it be used, not what it would feature or who would use it. This is a needs-driven strategy, requiring a lot of research & cultural anthropology. It means discovering who needs ‘coolth’, and when and how they need it, not who needs an air conditioner.
This is hard for established, risk-averse, inflexible companies to do because:
Hence it is often best to have the innovation in established companies done by a new, autonomous division or group, free from the constraints, prejudices, risk-aversion and ‘why rock the boat’ thinking of the existing operations.
To identify customers for disruptive innovations, Christensen says you need to look for:
It’s important that these potential customers perceive the product to be ‘foolproof’: easy to use, easy to learn, easy to buy (though if the product is for recreational use, customers may buy a product with a steeper learning curve if the learning is fun).
Equally important is that there be available, and hungry, channel partners (sources of supply, distributors, retailers, marketers etc.) to help you get it to market — if these partners and their materials and skills are scarce, or disinterested in you, customers may give up on you before you’re able to deliver reliably.
The rest of the book provides suggestions on the right roles for your company in developing the innovation, how to partner with other appropriate companies to optimize competencies and synergy, how to find the non-commodity, high profit points in the customer value chain, the importance of setting up the right people, process, values, alliances and organizational structure for innovation, how to align your strategy to support innovation (using an emergent, complex system-friendly strategy), and how to address financing and risk issues in innovation ventures.
The final section addresses the role of senior management in disruptive innovation. Leaders, he says, must exercise three key responsibilities: (a) allocate appropriate, patient resources; (b) establish a process to continuously generate disruptive innovations; and (c) detect and adapt to changes in markets and other elements of the system. The four elements of a ‘disruptive growth engine’ therefore are:
In these areas, Christensen is on comfortable and solid ground.
But I keep coming back in my thinking to how an organization can actually apply his earlier advice on how to identify potential disruptive innovations and how to identify customers for them (and which comes first anyway?) It’s a lot easier in theory than it is in practice, as I can tell you from personal experience.
Let’s take the example of a company that has expertise in the textile industry, for example. They have an established market in specialized blankets, and some scientific expertise in weaving and in thermal properties of materials. If they’re threatened by new low-cost Asian competitors in this mature market space, how would they go about becoming a disruptive innovator? They wouldn’t talk to existing customers — that’s for sustaining innovation not disruptive innovation. They wouldn’t do competitive analysis — except perhaps if they could identify some over-served customers. Other than raw imagination and a lot of serendipitous reading and lateral thinking, it’s hard to imagine how such a company, even with a separate, empowered innovation team, could begin to identify either the unmet needs within their competency to deliver, or the customers that have these needs.
What Christensen needs to add is a whole process to surface these needs and customers. Who, other than established buyers of blankets, might be interested in textiles with thermal properties? Hospitals and doctors dealing with hypothermia? Insulation companies? Gardeners and farmers seeking to protect crops from frost? Swimming pool cover manufacturers? Expedition outfitters? And since good thermal properties also insulate against heat, should we also consider cooler manufacturers, refrigerators, umbrella makers, UV-ray protectors etc.? The possibilities are endless. How do we effectively brainstorm and then filter the potential customers and potential opportunities?
The answer, I think, is a discovery process, but one somewhat different and more dependent on brainstorming, creativity, very broad environmental scanning, research, cultural anthropology and exploratory conversations than the one I have suggested for achieving understanding in complex situations.
How, do you think, should such a discovery process be structured? If it were your job to develop the process to find new customers for new products meeting new untapped needs, that are within your company’s competency to provide, how would you go about it?
This process just might be the holy grail of entrepreneurship.
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