The Innovator's Dilemma

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The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Management of Innovation and Change) 

In his book The Innovator's Dilemma, Harvard professor and entrepreneur Clayton M. Christensen discusses why successful businesses might fail in the face of disruptive innovation. 

Christensen created the phrase "disruptive innovation" to explain how new technologies or business models have the potential to build new value networks and markets while eventually displacing more existing ones.

The book makes the case that profitable businesses frequently concentrate on providing sustaining innovations—gradual enhancements to current goods or services—to meet the needs of their current clients. 

This, however, can make companies susceptible to disruptive developments, which initially appeal exclusively to a niche market or a low-end segment but are frequently cheaper, simpler, or more convenient than the current offers. 

These disruptive technologies might get better with time and finally satisfy the needs of common consumers, who might then switch to different goods or services. By the time the established businesses become aware of the danger, it might be too late to act quickly.

The book uses multiple examples from several industries, including disk drives, steel, retail, and education, to highlight this tendency. It demonstrates how businesses such as Seagate, U.S. Steel, Sears, and Harvard were unable to foresee or adapt to disruptive advancements made by rivals such as Conner, Nucor, Walmart, and the University of Phoenix. 

It also demonstrates how some businesses, such as IBM, Honda, and Apple, were able to develop disruptive breakthroughs or deal with them by utilizing various techniques.

The book suggests that incumbent companies can overcome the innovator's dilemma by following these principles:
  • Recognize that different types of innovations require different types of management and organizational structures.
  • Create separate divisions or subsidiaries that are independent of the core business and have their own resources, processes, and values to pursue disruptive innovations.
  • Allocate resources to both sustaining and disruptive innovations based on strategic criteria rather than short-term financial returns.
  • Experiment with new technologies and business models in emerging markets or low-end segments before scaling up or entering mainstream markets.
  • Be flexible and willing to change course or abandon projects based on market feedback and learning.

The Innovator's Dilemma is a classic work that has influenced many entrepreneurs, managers, and scholars. It questions established beliefs and offers a framework for comprehending and appreciating disruptive innovation. 


The "Innovator's Dilemma" refers to the difficult decision that companies face when they must choose between investing in new technologies or sticking with their existing business model. Despite doing everything right, they risk being left behind by competitors who are willing to take risks and innovate.

The book differentiates between sustaining technologies, which are improvements that make a product better, and disruptive technologies, which are innovations that result in worse product performance, at least in the short term. Disruptive technologies are typically cheaper, simpler, smaller, and more convenient to use.

While the "10,000-Hour Rule" isn't directly discussed in "The Innovator's Dilemma", the concept is relevant. It suggests that mastery in any field requires approximately 10,000 hours of practice. In the context of the book, this could be interpreted as the time and effort required to develop and implement disruptive technologies.

The book suggests that established firms often struggle with disruptive technologies. While these firms excel at improving existing technologies (sustaining innovations), they often overlook disruptive technologies because they do not initially meet the needs of their mainstream customers.

The book suggests that companies should develop a separate organization that focuses on the disruptive technology. This allows the organization to stay lean and adaptive, and to grow along with the emerging market. It also protects the disruptive project from being overshadowed by the existing business.

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