Product management glosary

Disruptive Innovation

Product Management Glossary: Disruptive Innovation

What is Disruptive Innovation?

Disruptive Innovation is a term that was first introduced by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen in his 1997 book, "The Innovator's Dilemma." It refers to a process by which a product, service, or business model enters a market and eventually displaces established competitors by offering a new, more efficient, or otherwise superior solution. Disruptive innovations often target overlooked or underserved segments of the market, and they can have a significant impact on the way industries operate and evolve.

Characteristics of Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovations typically exhibit several key characteristics, which set them apart from other types of innovations:

  • Accessibility: Disruptive innovations often make products or services more accessible to a broader audience, either by lowering costs, simplifying the user experience, or both.
  • Market impact: Disruptive innovations have the potential to significantly change the competitive landscape of an industry, often by displacing incumbent market leaders.
  • Technological or business model innovation: Disruptive innovations often involve the introduction of new technologies or business models that enable the delivery of products or services in a more efficient or effective manner.
  • Initial market entry: Disruptive innovations often begin by targeting niche or underserved segments of the market, before eventually expanding to challenge established competitors.

Examples of Disruptive Innovation

There are numerous examples of disruptive innovations that have transformed industries and reshaped the competitive landscape. Some notable examples include:

  • Digital photography: The introduction of digital cameras disrupted the traditional film photography industry, eventually leading to the decline of companies like Kodak.
  • Streaming services: Online streaming platforms like Netflix and Spotify have disrupted the traditional media and entertainment industries, displacing established players like Blockbuster and record stores.
  • Ride-sharing: Companies like Uber and Lyft have disrupted the traditional taxi and transportation industries by offering a more convenient and cost-effective alternative.
  • E-commerce: Online retailers like Amazon have disrupted the traditional retail industry by offering a more convenient and often cheaper shopping experience.

Challenges and Opportunities for Incumbents

Disruptive innovations can pose significant challenges for established companies, as they often require a fundamental shift in business models, strategies, and organizational structures. However, they also present opportunities for incumbents to adapt and evolve in order to remain competitive in the face of disruption. Some strategies that companies can employ to respond to disruptive innovations include:

  • Investing in innovation: Companies can invest in research and development to create their own disruptive innovations or to improve upon existing products and services.
  • Acquiring or partnering with disruptors: Established companies can acquire or form strategic partnerships with disruptive startups in order to gain access to new technologies or business models.
  • Adapting existing business models: Companies can adapt their existing business models to better compete with disruptive innovations, such as by offering new pricing structures or adopting new distribution channels.
  • Embracing organizational change: Companies can embrace organizational change by fostering a culture of innovation and adaptability, and by being willing to take risks and experiment with new ideas.


Disruptive innovation is a powerful force that can reshape industries and redefine the competitive landscape. By understanding the characteristics and implications of disruptive innovations, companies can better position themselves to adapt and thrive in the face of change. For product managers, being aware of potential disruptive innovations and understanding how they may impact their industry is crucial for developing successful strategies and staying ahead of the competition.