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Projects-to-Products: The Innovator's Dilemma

By Brian Nathanson posted Nov 21, 2019 12:52 PM

So if we build on my previous two posts about Crossing the Chasm (here and here), you might take away that the vast majority of customers prefer incremental changes that preserve the existing value they have -- adding new value only inasmuch as it remains non-disruptive. This leads me to the second product marketing model that I find valuable: The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton Christensen.

Again, paraphrasing ruthlessly (with apologies to the author), what makes your product successful up until today may doom it in the future because sustaining innovations -- smaller incremental improvements in a previous model -- are almost always overwhelmed eventually by disruptive innovations -- pioneering new ways of accomplishing similar outcomes.

Think Kodak's focus on continuing to innovate traditional film rather than transition heavily to digital media and you've got a decent example. Retiring an old application for managing projects in favor of a newer, more attractive project management system is another example -- where the new system (or process that goes along with it) is the "disruptive innovation."

As a result, Product Managers are faced with a balancing act: How do you continue to maintain "market leadership" (or customer satisfaction for internal products) while also staying on top of disruptive technologies serving niche markets that might ultimately take over? Especially since many potentially disruptive technologies never make it to the mainstream.

Using a business-outcome-based model is one key way to help try to avoid obsolescence. If a product manager sees their goal as achieving the outcome -- putting people on planes quickly and safely (in an airline check-in example) -- they may innovate new ways of achieving that outcome more easily than if they focus on the current way it works -- printing boarding passes faster, making them available on mobile, etc. Maybe the correct answer is to avoid boarding passes entirely and just scan IDs at the gate? Biometric IDs? Passive ID via cameras and facial recognition?

How you define your overall objectives will often influence how well you are able address this well-observed phenomenon. Something for Product Managers to keep in mind as we all work to stay relevant in our respective industries.