Strategy Canvases, Top-Down Disruptions, and a Methodology for Customer-Driven Innovation

ast week I wrote about disruptive innovation as described in Clay Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Solution, and lamented that, although Christensen provides a variety of tools and techniques for innovation his methodology lacks an approach to the lateral thinking or ‘imagineering’ that is needed to apply them effectively.

Now, Nicholas Carr, author of the provocative 2003 HBR article “IT Doesn’t Matter” (which I reviewed here) and a subsequent book on the same subject called Does IT Matter?, has written a supplement to Christensen’s work in Strategy + Business magazine, describing a fourth type of innovation he calls “Top-Down Disruption”. Here’s a synopsis of all four types:

  • Sustaining Innovations are valuable enhancements to products and services brought to an existing market, a known group of customers. Large corporations, who ‘have’ most of those customers, have a huge advantage in introducing such innovations. Example: HP’s ‘all-in-one’ products, building additional functionality into their printers to allow them to be used as scanners, copiers and fax machines as well.
  • Low-End Disruptive Innovations entail offering a lower-cost product to existing over-served customers, which incumbents don’t care about because they’re at the low-margin end of their customer base; then as technology improves, the disruptor gradually eats into the incumbents’ primary markets from below. Example: How steel minimills cannibalized the mainsteam steel industry from below, starting with Rebar and moving upward to sheet steel.
  • New Market Disruptive Innovations entail developing and offering a product with benefits previously not available at all or which are very inconvenient to customers, and hence creating entirely new markets for entirely new groups of customers. Example: The PC and the personal copier offered computing power to a new group of customers who could never hope to afford mainframe or minicomputers.
  • Top-Down Disruptive Innovations actually outperform existing products when theyíre introduced, and they sell for a premium price rather than at a discount. Theyíre initially purchased by the most discriminating and least price-sensitive buyers, and then they move steadily downward, into the mainstream, to recast the entire market in their own image. Example: FedEx’s offering of premium overnight document delivery.

The first and fourth types are used primarily by incumbents, market leaders in an industry, while the second and third types can be used by new entrants to gain a foothold in an industry.

Top-Down Disruptive Innovations, Carr argues, can exploit the same long-term trend to more powerful technologies and falling commodity prices that low-end disrupters use, except that instead of cannibalizing the market from the bottom-up (as increasing power/cost allows the lowly disruption to do successively more and more for the same price), it cannibalizes the market from the top-down (as increasing power/cost allows it to reduce prices from premium to mainstream and make the product affordable and valuable to all its customers). There is some danger in doing this, of course, since you may be obsolescing some of your own company’s products, but since you’re in the driver’s seat (with a market lead in the new product, and a strong relationship with existing customers) and since you’re also cannibalizing competitors’ products at the same time, the risk is usually worth it.

Carr argues that the iPod is also a top-down disruption, but I’m not so sure. Carr himself admits that the iPod, offering more (capacity and features) for more (money), was not initially a market success. I’m I’m sitting here beside my Creative Nomad, which is admittedly larger but still portable and which beat the iPod into the market by at least a couple of years with essentially the same capacity and functionality. And one of the most popular iPods is the mini, which actually doesn’t offer a disruptive innovation at all (its capacity is quite modest compared to competitive offerings). No doubt there were other factors (style, the value of the Apple brand, marketing resources, timing) which account for the iPod mini’s success and the Nomad’s (relative) failure. But much more study is needed to discover why some top-down disruptions succeed while others fail. Christensen argues that it is very dangerous for new entrants to try to introduce innovations that can be co-opted by incumbents as sustaining innovations, and I think there is an argument that the iPod was Apple’s sustaining innovation for its established customers in response to the attempted disruptive innovations of Creative and other early entrants into hard-drive based portable music players.

In fact, Carr argues that because of their adaptability and lack of investment in existing products, new entrants are at a competitive advantage compared to incumbents in introducing top-down disruptive innovations. I don’t think this is true. Many brave entrepreneurs, for example, like Bricklin, have tried introducing premium automobiles for high-income car-lovers, but almost none of them have survived. They play right into the hands of mainstream premium automakers, doing their market research for them, so that these incumbents can build the attributes that customers liked into their next offerings. Carr is right on identifying this as a fourth innovation category, but I think it’s strictly an incumbents’ game, especially if the incumbent does what Christensen suggests, and have the top-down disruptions developed by a separate, autonomous division.

I’ve described before the ten ways in which you can innovate, using the Doblin Group taxonomy:

  • Product attributes or performance: How you design your core offerings  (e.g. the Mercedes Smart Car’s unique and imaginative attributes)
  • Product system: How you link and/or provide a platform for multiple products (e.g. the Microsoft integrated productivity suite)
  • Core processes: How you create and add value to your offerings (e.g. Wal-Mart’s reinvention of retailing as shelf-space leasing)
  • Enabling process: How you support the company’s core processes and workers (e.g. Starbucks’ premium wage and benefits packages to attract superior staff)
  • Service: How you provide value to customers and consumers beyond and around your products (e.g. Singapore Airlines’ thoughtful and pampering extras)
  • Delivery Channel: How you get your offerings to market (e.g. Martha Stewart’s multi-media ways of getting her ‘home’ stuff to your home)
  • Brand: How you communicate your offerings (e.g. Absolut vodka’s “theme and variations’ advertising concept)
  • Customer experience: How your customers feel when they interact with your company and its offerings (e.g. the Harley Davidson owners’ community)
  • Networks and alliances: How you join forces with other companies for mutual benefit  (e.g. Sara Lee sticking strictly to branding and outsourcing all manufacturing)
  • Business model: How you make money (e.g. Dell’s pay-in-advance for a custom-made PC model).

So if you map these ten ways of innovating (and add additional factors that Doblin doesn’t consider terribly innovative, like Price and Speed of Service) against the four Christensen-Carr types of innovation you have a 4 x 12 matrix of innovation opportunities.

Then you can layer on the Strategy Canvas described in  Kim & Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean Strategy, which chart the value that customers place on attributes of the products and services your industry provides (or might provide through disruptive innovation). An example from their book is reproduced above, showing that Southwest Airlines innovated by differentiating itself from other airlines in three ways (friendly service, speed and frequent departures) that customers really valued, and not attempting to compete on price, meals, lounge service or other attributes that customers cared less about.

Combining these three sources provides the basis for a comprehensive and intriguing methodology for innovation:

  1. Research and draw the Strategy Canvas for each of the players in your industry, showing your own and each competitor’s strategy.
  2. Now talk to existing and especially low-end and current non-customers, and assess for each segment what they value. When they tell you about attributes, performance standards, platforms, process standards, service standards, delivery options, customer experience wishes, and other needs and wants that aren’t currently on the Canvas at all, add them to the right-hand side of the x-axis. Make a copy of the Canvas for each significant segment of your customer base.
  3. Then, for each segment of your customer base (including low-end and current non-customers) draw on the Canvas the relative value of each of the strategy elements to that segment — how important that segment thinks each attribute is (or would be, if it’s something not currently available at all) when they make their buying decision. As a reality check, if this line maps closely to that of one of the current players in your industry, that player should be dominant with that segment. If they aren’t it’s likely that the customers don’t perceive that player’s strategy to be as tightly aligned to their needs as you perceive it to be, so reconsider how you’ve charted that player’s strategy (remember, the customer’s perception of it is reality).
  4. Look for the largest gaps between what you currently, and what your competitors currently offer, and what each segment of customers and prospective customers value. Now you know what is needed.
  5. Brainstorm within your organization for each of the four types of innovation that would allow your company to close these gaps and meet these needs. Then decide whether the opportunities you come up with are (a) within your capabilities and resources to deliver (and consistent with your culture and values), (b) potentially profitable, and (c) truly innovative (enough to overcome customers’ tendency to stay with the supplier they know).
  6. The opportunities that pass these tests should then be ‘imagined out’ — details thought through, experiments and market tests and protoypes developed and conducted, and obstacles to bringing to market overcome.

Tomorrow I’ll present a ‘straw man’ case walking through this methodology (with the benefit of hindsight) as it might have applied in the transformation, a generation ago, of a troubled company into an innovation leader.

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2 Responses to Strategy Canvases, Top-Down Disruptions, and a Methodology for Customer-Driven Innovation

  1. Great article! The Doblin Group taxonomy looks like a business plan to me. It should help everyone to come up with a business idea, a technology, a product, a service. Apart from two specific issues: (1) Enabling process; (2) Customer experience. It’s rare enough to mention it, especially when it’s linked to user-centered innovation. When we think of supporting company’s processes and workers, we mean caring about employees’ health and security, optimizing the work environment and overall logistics, supporting ethic management, implementing environmental friendly production processes and offering awaited products or services. It goes along with the REPUTATION of the company; it has nothing to do with trademark or any other kind of marketing-oriented image creation. It simply meets customers’ real needs, while first being concerned with those who take care of the job and their environment. This is the realm of occupational medicine, occupational hygiene, ergonomics, work psychology, logistics, corporate governance and political economics. Future innovative boosters will CRASH the value/cost trade-off and create THE uncontested market space we all dream off: the VALUE FOR LIFE trade-off!!! Create and capture new demand by offering priceless products and services, at low cost, those that really increase the quality of political debate, the quality of education and the quality of life. Create stuff that helps people to build a freedom-based society, the one that gets rid of human starvation, offers fun & comfort and respect Gaia. We shall change the rules, expand imagination beyond metaphysics and assume being pataphysicians once for all. Science shall be there to serve humans, not the other way round. All the rest is bullshit:

  2. BAZ says:

    Hi Dave,Nice write up on this info.I have read the Blue Ocean Stratey but are having trouble plotting out a strategy canvas. I cant seem to work out what competiting factors for a IT distributor could put.Should I be using this as per product category instead? It’s got me very confused!I’ve been trying to get my business back on track for 5 years now and have been struggling. (two man operation)I’d appreciate your help! Thanks.

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