Series’ latest installment helps businesses glimpse the future

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Oct. 1, 2004 – Dilemma. Solution. Prediction. And don’t expect it to stop there.

Clayton Christensen won several converts in the business community with the publication of his first book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” The book, based on his research at Harvard Business School, explained how and why innovative newcomers can upend established corporations.

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Its sequel, “Innovator’s Solution,” outlined tools and strategies incumbent businesses can apply to create and benefit from disruptive innovation. The 2003 book also served as a resource for young technology companies by showing them under what circumstances they might succeed at overthrowing their larger and better financed competitors.

One year later, Christensen partnered with former students Scott Anthony and Erik Roth on his third and most accessible exploration of his vision for innovation as a disruptive force.

In “Seeing What’s Next,” they take the theories that serve as the foundation for Christensen’s research and explain how the ideas can be used to analyze if and how the disruption process can change industry.

By Book III, it is becoming clear that Christensen knows how to practice what he preaches. His fresh vision is based on a theory rooted in observation, testing and analysis. He gives reading consumers something they can’t easily get elsewhere: understandable guidelines for a strategic leg up, whether those readers are CEOs of a startup, managers in a corporation, inventors or investors looking for the next bust or blockbuster.

The content is “good enough.” That is not a slam in anyway on the authors. They argue that a disruptive business strategy shouldn’t shoot for an established corporation’s high-value customers. Instead it should target new markets or markets where products are “too good” for a segment of consumers.

Go after a corporation’s most coveted customers and it will be motivated to battle your business head on. Chase its least desirable clientele, and it may cede what to it is a marginal market. Woo a consumer base that isn’t even on the corporate radar screen, and you are clear to grow without interference.

The authors use the telecommunications industry to illustrate their points. Western Union dismissed Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone as a toy when it learned of his invention in the 1870s. His development of a system that allowed people in a limited radius to communicate thrilled businesses and residents in served regions, but was of no consequence to the long-distance telegraph service.

That disinterest let Bell grow revenue and further develop and expand his technologies. Western Union recognized the threat far too late to make a technology that could challenge Bell, despite its financial resources.

More than a century later, the telephone industry is fending off a number of Bell-like innovators: communication models based on the Internet, cable and wireless technologies. The authors examine each approach to predict the likely outcomes. They also dedicate chapters to the industries of education, aviation, semiconductors and health care.

Their approach is straightforward and methodical. They explain their analytical process, spell out what signals to look for in any given circumstance and propose a series of questions to gauge the motivation, capabilities, resources and other factors that help determine if an innovation is disruptive or simply sustaining. But of course that doesn’t guarantee it will succeed. They provide flags ranging from regulatory roadblocks to lack of commitment that can doom an enterprise.

Keeping with the “good enough” credo, they offer a format for the most time-pressed readers. The conclusion offers a bare-bones version of Innovator principles and practices, and a hint of new directions. “There are many ways for future researchers to build on and refine our work. Two particular areas of interest would be to look at anomalies (things the theories predict would happen that don’t) and to develop deeper analytical tools.”

I welcome the sequel to “Seeing What’s Next.” Like the disruptors they study, Christensen and his protégés have found a way to present information that might be too general for Christensen’s academic journals or clients of a consultancy he founded 2000. (Anthony is a partner.) “Seeing What’s Next” is perhaps an inferior product for those colleagues and constituents, but at under 30 bucks it is affordable and plenty good enough for many other business consumers.


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