THE BLOG
08/06/2014 05:31 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2014

The Daily Innovator: Disruptive or Sustaining? Does It Matter?

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In June Jill Lepore of The New Yorker wrote an article challenging Clayton Christenson's famous use of the word "disruption" to characterize significant innovation, suggesting that it is more theology than predictive methodology. Christenson responded in an irritated interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, challenging Lepore's credentials. Lots of people with a professional interest in innovation weighed in.

We think arguments about whether a new product or a new service or a new business model are "disruptive" or "sustaining" innovations are usually premature. Whether a new idea fits in one category or another is usually obvious only in retrospect.

Sometimes an idea that looks like a sustaining innovation will only emerge as disruptive in the course of time. The addition of a camera to a mobile phone, for example, seemed like an innovation that allowed people to carry one device rather than two--a nice product improvement. In time it revealed itself to be a disruptive innovation that powered the growth of social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and even Houzz.

And sometimes what looks at first like a game-changer is seen in retrospect as a sustaining innovation instead. And that's no failure.

Sustaining innovation, for example, may not change world history but it can be hugely important to growth and the health of a business. The Doblin Group estimates that 92 percent of innovation value is created by sustaining innovations. Just ask McDonald's, whose introduction of the McWrap was hardly a "disruption" but was hugely important to the company's profitability last year.

Smart people watching the operating environment spot change coming. When they act on their insight they are probably not thinking, "Will this big idea of mine be disruptive or sustaining?" For them all innovation is good; they'll categorize it later. They are thinking, How can I get out there and validate my idea in the real world? How can I get insight that will point me toward something real, something scalable? Will it take the business where it wants to go?

When Amy was at Citibank, for example, her team launched a trial that allowed Citi's credit card customers to access their accounts with a small device at the turnstiles of the Lexington Avenue subway in New York. The device, dubbed the "magic fob," contained a contactless chip. The technology generated excitement in the industry but lacked an application motivating to customers. The pilot was based on the hunch that creating a better commuter experience would enhance loyalty to Citi-branded cards. Though the deployment of the technology wasn't yet at scale in retail points of sale the Citi team hoped to learn something about how using technology to redesign an everyday experience might influence people's credit card usage.

Even without the perfect circumstances for a trial Citi went out and got their hands dirty. Data gathered from the trial set the stage for what would eventually become a global transit-payments business--a great and unforeseen result.

There are numerous other examples we could cite. The point of all of them would be that what finally matters to an innovator is whether an idea can speak to an unsolved problem or an unmet marketplace need, and do it in a scalable way.

From the practitioner's point of view--which is to say, The Daily Innovator's point of view--what matters are the practical elements of innovation, not the academic ones. For practitioners it is not a matter of saying, "I will create a sustaining innovation" or "I will create a disruptive innovation." Quite the contrary, innovators see the root problem they are trying to solve, the unmet marketplace need they want to satisfy, and then develop responses targeting the opportunity hidden in the problem.

Taking that approach will describe the solution to the problem. That's the way to win organizational support and, in a phrase, permission to innovate. And that's the subject of our next entry.

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Other featured articles by The Daily Innovator (sm):

The Daily Innovator (sm): Born or Built?
What sort of person is it who can shape new ideas and bring them to life as businesses? Put another way, is an innovator's temperament born or is it built? We say it's built.

The Daily Innovator (sm): Nine Ideas for Sparking Curiosity in Your Collaborators
Are some people just born curious? Or can curiosity be cultivated? The answer matters because curiosity is a necessity for innovation. If curiosity isn't instinctive among your collaborators then you need to bring it to life. At The Daily Innovator (sm) we tend see every glass as half-full. We believe curiosity can be awakened in anyone. We've got nine different ways for doing it.

The Daily Innovator (sm): It's Not Who You Know But How They Think
Anyone who has ever run a new idea through the signoffs and resourcing approvals needed to launch even a small pilot has encountered a range of reactions -- from support by fellow innovators to resistance against anything that might rattle the status quo. You end up asking yourself, "Why do some make a leap of faith based on preliminary indicators of market success while others want multilayered spreadsheets of evidence that purport to take all the risk out of a new idea?"

The Daily Innovator (sm): Email to the CEO
Our organization is challenged by complex issues -- technology, demanding customers, new competitors, a changing regulatory environment, on and on. And still we're expected to show profitable growth. We both know there isn't a company in existence that isn't declaring that the answer to this collective conundrum is innovation.