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“Disruptive innovators know how to listen to the right customers in the right way.”
Mark Hurst, best-selling business author and customer experience guru
The dangers of a blind focus on ‘disruptive innovation’
Image: Catalina Kulczar
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The dangers of a blind focus on ‘disruptive innovation’

February 2014

Disruptive innovators don’t ignore existing customers, says Mark Hurst. They seek out forward-thinking ones to listen to.

In an effort to be ‘disruptive’ many entrepreneurs have unfortunately concluded that they should ignore customers altogether. This is a dangerous interpretation of the concept popularized in The Innovator’s Dilemma, the 1997 book by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. The book features case studies of industries, from hard drives to mechanical excavators, which were transformed by the arrival of radically new technologies; with disruptive competitors reorienting markets around themselves while older products quickly became irrelevant.

Christensen suggests that listening to one’s current customers may cause a company to limit itself to ‘sustaining technologies,’ thus preserving its current business while ignoring the larger competitive landscape. As he puts it: “There are times at which it is right not to listen to customers.”

While it’s true that sometimes customers shouldn’t be listened to, it’s more nuanced than that. There are different types of customers, and very different ways of listening to them. Being disruptive requires knowing how to listen, in the right ways, to the right customers.

Stated in a different way, pursuing disruption by itself is not sufficient to create a winning strategy. One could propose a dozen ways to disrupt any given industry — and launch a company or initiative to try out each one — but without some thought toward the impact on customers, all those disruptive ideas are likely to fail. Companies that aim to be disruptive should certainly include the customer.

‘Disruptive innovation’ can be a helpful framework for understanding a fast-moving competitive environment such as the technology industry. However, focusing only on disruptive forces, to the exclusion of the customer, is dangerous.

• Mark Hurst’s latest book Customers Included (co-authored with Phil Terry) is out now.

First published
February 2014
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About: Mark Hurst
Mark Hurst, founder and president of business consultancy Creative Good, has spent his career writing, speaking and advising on the strategic importance of creating great customer experience.

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