What Is Disruptive Innovation? Definition and Example

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Disruptive Innovation

What is Disruptive Innovation

Let’s begin with the absolute basics first.

Disruptive innovation is a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. 

Disruptive innovation Definition:

Disruptive innovation is described as a process by which a new product or service transforms an existing market by introducing more uncomplicated, affordable, and accessible alternatives to established offerings. 

It often displaces market leaders by targeting new market segments or offering a lower-cost alternative that appeals to a broader range of customers.

It can pose a major challenge for an already established business. However, they can also allow new companies to enter the market and disrupt the status quo.

Disruptive innovation thrives on thinking outside the box and daring to question established practices. It embodies creativity, risk-taking, and a relentless pursuit of improvement. By identifying overlooked market segments and introducing novel solutions, disruptors turn the tables on traditional businesses, creating new opportunities and reshaping customer expectations.

While disruptive innovation is exciting, it’s not without its challenges. Established companies often play catch-up, are forced to adapt, or risk becoming obsolete. Yet, precisely this competitive environment drives progress and fosters a culture of continuous improvement and customer-centricity.

Distinction Between Disruptive and Sustaining Innovations

Understanding the distinction between disruptive and sustaining innovation is essential to make the best decisions. 

Let’s look at a few differences between the two.

  • Disruptive innovation: A disruptive innovation is a new product or service that changes people’s thoughts about a market. It often offers a simpler, more affordable alternative to existing products and services, and it can appeal to new market segments that were previously ignored. Disruptive innovations can often be disruptive to established companies, as they can erode market share and profits.
  • Sustaining innovation: A sustaining innovation is a new product or service that improves upon an existing product or service. It offers better performance, features, or functionality than existing products and services. Sustaining innovations can help established companies to maintain their market share and profits.

Here is a table that summarizes the key differences between disruptive and sustaining innovations:

FeatureDisruptive InnovationSustaining Innovation
Target marketNew market segmentsExisting market segments
Product performanceGood enoughBetter than existing products and services
Business modelLow-cost, low-profitHigh-profit
Impact on established companiesCan be disruptiveCan help to maintain market share and profits

It is important to note that disruptive and sustaining innovations are not mutually exclusive. A company can engage in both types of invention at the same time. For example, a company developing a disruptive innovation may also be working on sustaining innovations to improve its existing products and services.

Companies can better position themselves to succeed in the marketplace by understanding the difference between disruptive and sustaining innovations. Disruptive innovations can help companies to create new markets and capture new customers while sustaining innovations can help companies to improve their products and services and maintain their market share.

Examples of Disruptive Innovations

For a deeper understanding, let’s look at a few examples.

  1. Uber: You’ve probably heard of Uber, right? Well, it completely disrupted the taxi industry with its ride-sharing app. Instead of standing on a street corner, waving your hand for a cab, Uber made it possible to request a ride with just a few taps on your smartphone. It revolutionized how we hailed a passage and introduced a new business model that challenged traditional taxi services. Now, you can easily connect with drivers, track your ride, and even split the fare with friends, all through a simple app.
  2. Airbnb: Remember when finding accommodation while traveling meant choosing hotels or motels? Well, Airbnb came along and disrupted that too. It created a platform that allows regular people to rent out their spare rooms or entire properties to travelers. Suddenly, you had many unique and affordable options beyond the traditional hotel experience. From cozy apartments in bustling cities to stunning vacation homes in remote areas, Airbnb made it possible to have more authentic and personalized stays wherever you go.
  3. Netflix: Do you still remember the days of renting DVDs from a physical store? Well, Netflix turned that industry on its head with its disruptive innovation. Instead of trekking to the video rental store, Netflix introduced a DVD-by-mail service to order movies online and deliver them to your doorstep. But they didn’t stop there. Netflix further disrupted the market by transitioning to an online streaming model. They made it possible to stream a vast library of movies and TV shows directly to your TV, computer, or even mobile devices, revolutionizing how we consume entertainment.
  4. Tesla: When you think of electric cars, Tesla is the first name that comes to mind. With its sleek designs and impressive performance, Tesla disrupted the automotive industry by popularizing electric vehicles (EVs). They proved that electric cars could be practical, stylish, and fun to drive, challenging the dominance of traditional internal combustion engine vehicles. Tesla’s innovation spurred other automakers to invest in EV technology, leading to broader adoption of sustainable transportation and a shift away from fossil fuels.

You can look around, and there are tons of such examples.

These examples showcase how disruptive innovations can completely transform established industries, challenging the status quo and offering new and improved ways of doing things. They bring convenience, choice, and fresh perspectives to our lives, impacting how we live, travel, entertain ourselves, and more.

Strategies for Dealing with Disruptive Innovation

Now that we have a fair idea about the basics, its time to get down to the brass tracks and decode the ways to deal with disruptive innovation 

  1. Be proactive. Don’t wait for disruptive innovation to happen to you. Instead, look for new technologies and trends that could disrupt your industry. Once you’ve identified a potential disruptor, please start thinking about how to adapt your business to accommodate it.
  2. Be open to change. Disruptive innovation often requires businesses to change the way they do things. This can be difficult, but being open to new ideas and approaches is essential. If you’re not willing to change, you’ll be left behind.
  3. Be innovative. Refrain from reacting to disruptive innovation. Be proactive and find ways to use it to your advantage. This could mean developing new products or services or finding new ways to market and sell your existing products.
  4. Be collaborative. Disruptive innovation can be a challenge for any business, but it’s even more difficult to overcome independently. Partner with other businesses in your industry or companies developing disruptive technologies. By working together, you can pool your resources and knowledge to respond more effectively to disruption.
  5. Be patient. Disruptive innovation only happens after some time. It can take years for a new technology to gain widespread adoption. Expect to wait to see the results. Be patient and persistent, and you’ll eventually be able to overcome the challenges posed by disruptive innovation.

By following these strategies, you can increase your chances of surviving and thriving in the face of disruptive innovation.


Who knew that even the staggering growth in innovation and technologies could be disruptive? Here we are in a new and surprising age. But, as they say, change is the new constant. Companies that can efficiently adapt to the dynamic world would outshine and grow. 

In conclusion, disruptive innovation is not just a fancy term used by industry experts—it’s a phenomenon that has reshaped our world. It represents the driving force behind groundbreaking advancements that challenge the norm and redefine entire industries. We’ve seen how disruptive innovations like Uber, Airbnb, Netflix, and Tesla have brought about remarkable changes, transforming how we hail rides, find accommodations, consume entertainment, and even power our vehicles.

As we move forward, it’s essential to recognize the impact of disruptive innovation and embrace its potential. By fostering a culture that encourages experimentation, risk-taking, and a willingness to challenge the status quo, we can unlock new possibilities and shape a future where innovation thrives.

So, the next time you come across a disruptive innovation, remember that it represents more than just a technological advancement—it embodies the spirit of progress, driving us toward a more dynamic and exciting world. Embrace the disruption, and together, let’s shape a future defined by innovation, creativity, and transformative change.


What are the 2 types of disruptive innovations?

There are two types of disruptive innovations: sustaining and disruptive.

  • Sustaining innovations are incremental improvements to existing products or services. They are designed to meet current customers’ needs and improve the performance of existing products.
  • Disruptive innovations are new products or services that create new markets or redefine existing ones. They are often more straightforward, affordable, and accessible than existing products or services.
Why is it a disruptive innovation?

An innovation is considered disruptive if it meets the following criteria:

  • It targets a new market or redefines an existing market.
  • It offers a simpler, more affordable, and more accessible alternative to existing products or services.
  • Incumbent firms initially ignore it.
  • It eventually displaces incumbent firms from the market.
What is a key feature of disruptive innovation?

A key feature of disruptive innovation is that it often targets or redefines a new market. This means that disruptive innovations are usually not initially appealing to the same customers as incumbent firms. However, disruptive innovations can eventually displace incumbent firms by offering a simpler, more affordable, and more accessible alternative.

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