Dec 012012
 

Disruption must surely be the hottest strategy concept of the past decade. But it is less of a breakthrough than it’s made out to be. And it may unnecessarily impede your strategic thinking.

The idea grew out of a study by Joseph Bower and Clayton Christensen, both professors at Harvard Business School, which saw light in a 1995 Harvard Business Review article titled “Disruptive Technologies, Catching The Wave.” It was subsequently moulded into a theory by Christensen, making him a superstar and spawning many books and articles by him and others. Thanks to determined promotion, it’s now a term you hear in almost every management discussion—though it’s seldom used as precisely as Christensen proposes.

The gospel according to Christensen goes like this:

In their quest for the most profitable customers, companies innovate and improve aggressively—and give customers more than they need or will pay for. And the more intently they listen to their customers, the more they up their game and sustain that gap.

While they focus on the next-generation performance needs of the most attractive customers, guerilla competitors sneak in under their price umbrella and target less attractive customers who’re being overlooked, ignored or under-served. The upstarts ask, “Who is not getting attention?” “What is value to those customers?”

The customers they aim at aren’t in the market for state-of-the-art products. So these firms can ditch the bells and whistles and keep costs and prices low.

Initially, the leaders don’t see a threat. The challengers are of no appeal to their best customers and aren’t chasing them anyway. Those customers they do lure are likely to be ones who always want a deal, are satisfied with “good enough” offerings, and won’t be missed.

But this is just a lull before the storm. Quite soon, more mainstream customers are tempted by the no-frills competitors. They need to forego some of the “value” they’ve grown used to, but what they get does the job—plus it’s easier to use, more convenient, and more affordable. So it offers them value, albeit not the kind they’ve been used to.

Many established players have been hurt this way—think clothing, airlines, steel, medical devices, consumer electronics, autos, and so on. But then they make things worse for themselves.

In an effort to counter competitors who won’t play by their rules, they typically race even faster up the value path. They invest even more in innovation and pile on features and benefits. But in their efforts to stay ahead of their enemies, they also stay ahead of their customers; and the cost of their overkill forces them to keep hiking their prices.

Some customers stick with them because they don’t mind paying more for products that they perceive to be at the leading edge. But the pool gets smaller. And the harder these firms try to hang on to their traditional business, the more they lock themselves into their “superior” strategy—and the worse things get for them.

FEW OPTIONS

If the leader wishes to retain its low-end customers, it has three options:

  1. Pump up its promotional activities, to hopefully persuade those customers to stay loyal.
  2. Keep offering the same products, but at a lower price.
  3. Eliminate some features and benefits, and cut prices.

The problem with Option 1 is that if customers learn that a competitor’s low-end offering is OK and costs less, some will leave. No amount of hype will convince them to keep paying top dollar for “value” they don’t need.

Option 2 may keep customers coming back, but margins will take a hit and buyers who’d paid the higher price will feel they ‘d been screwed.

Option 3 will result in the loss of top-end customers. The company will cannibalize itself. By offering less and tacitly admitting to customers that they’ve been paying too much, it’ll drive them into the arms of cheaper competitors.

Faced with these unpalatable choices, and trying desperately to evade the pesky newcomers, firms tend to even more doggedly pursue their current customers—whose numbers keep shrinking. Meanwhile, their low-priced competitors improve their offerings, hone their processes, and become more and more dangerous. And as their sales and profits grow, they can afford to intensify their advance.

Market-leading firms attained their dominance by focusing on an attractive target market and working furiously to satisfy it. They have a lot invested in their current strategy—money, resources, capabilities, relationships, processes—and are weighed down by these sunk costs. But even more by their mindset. So they can’t suddenly or easily change. Newcomers, on the other hand, have little baggage and can switch tack with relative ease.

OLD INSIGHTS REPACKAGED

Following Christensen’s thinking over the years, it’s hard to avoid a sense of deja vu. Even a quick glance back into the history of management thought makes it hard not to conclude that much of his “theory” is to be found in Marketing 101 and Strategy 101. And that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Take, for example, the notion of “the job to be done”—a Christensen favourite that’s sure to crop up in any discussion about disruption. This is, in fact, one of the oldest ideas in the marketing playbook.

So old, in fact, that it’s impossible to pin down its origin. But I suspect it gained explicit understanding in the 1930s, thanks to a famous American sales trainer named Elmer Wheeler who coined the phrase, “Don’t sell the steak—sell the sizzle.” His point was that it’s not a chunk of meat that customers want, it’s the pleasure that goes with it: the sizzle and aroma from the barbecue, companionship and fun with family and friends, and so on. This lesson has been drummed into copywriters and sales people for years.

In “Marketing Myopia,” a HBR article that won the 1960 McKinsey Award, Ted Levitt made the then-provocative case that too many companies limited their growth by defining their industries too narrowly, and by being more concerned with what their products could do than what their customers want done. Discussing the oil industry, for example, he noted: “People do not buy gasoline. They cannot see it, taste it, feel it, appreciate it, or really test it. What they buy is the right to continue driving their cars.”

Peter Drucker told us in his 1973 book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices:“The customer never buys a product. By definition the customer buys the satisfaction of a want.”

Levitt echoed this in his 1983 book The Marketing Imagination, writing that “people don’t buy things but buy solutions.” To illustrate his point, he recycled a quote from one Leo McGinneva, who’d said that when people buy a quarter-inch drill, “they don’t want quarter-inch bits; they want quarter-inch holes.” (Something another marketing guru, Philip Kotler, had said in 1980.) Levitt also observed that “The customer may actually want and expect less.” (My italics.)

Within months of his book appearing, Levitt also published an article in HBR titled “The Globalization of Markets.” The basic argument was that by stripping away the features and benefits that made products particularly appropriate for particular markets, firms could sell them to many more customers across the world. Citing the example of Japanese firms, he said: “They have discovered the one great thing all markets have in common—an overwhelming desire for dependable, world-standard modernity in all things, at aggressively low prices. In response, they deliver irresistible value everywhere, attracting people with products that market-research technocrats described with superficial certainty as being unsuitable and uncompetitive….”

And what about Christensen’s observation that the more closely firms listen to customers, and the harder they work to deliver what those customers say they’d like, the more likely they are to offer too much? Or that to compete with disruptors, the leader should spin off a totally separate business unit?

Nothing new here, either. This, and much else that he says, has been written about for decades. That disruption, as described by Christensen, has become such a fetish is a sad indictment of academic thought and management practice.

DEFINE “DISRUPTION” WITH CARE

The theory of disruptive strategy that so many people swoon over offers a very narrow view of how market disruption may occur, which firms are disruptors, or what disruptive strategy might be.

Can you possibly argue that Apple, say, is not a disrupter, because it sells beautiful, innovative products at high-end prices? (No “good enough” thinking here!)

And what would you say about Elon Musk’s award-winning Tesla S car? Or Woolworths, Nando’s peri-peri chicken, Discovery Health’s Vitality programme, Emirates airline, or Reckitt and Coleman’s household products?

By Christensen’s criteria, none of these deserves to be called “disruptor.” These products are all excellent, and priced accordingly. Their target market is not the “bottom of the pyramid.” Cheaper, “good enough” options are available from other firms.

But all have challenged convention and redefined their categories. And surely, that’s what disruption means.

The fact that some of these big names may face competitors who offer “good enough” products doesn’t shift the disruptor label from them to those upstarts. To split hairs about an arbitrary interpretation of what a word means is ridiculous.

Christensen has chosen one interpretation of what disruption means, and made it his own. He has focused on one strategic formula which highlights a very serious threat to market leaders, and also offers challengers a way to take them on. But no established firm should imagine it’ll be bulletproof if it follows his advice exclusively. Neither should any ambitious attacker close off strategic possibilities. Most managers would do better with a broader definition.

To disrupt something is to overturn the order of things. So how could you do that? Surely, not only by offering cheaper but “good enough” products to customers who’ve previously been ignored or overlooked.

The reality is that, in most markets, there are many ways to compete, many ways to upend convention. So strategic thinking should be about creating possibilities, not shutting them down. It should be about understanding the many ways you could be toppled, not just one.

If there’s one important thing all the chatter about disruption has achieved, it’s to focus managers’ attention on the three most critical strategy questions: who is your customer, what is value to them, and how will you deliver it? (Though you have to ask what else they’ve been thinking about!)

And yes, Christensen has added many examples of why this matters and some advice on making the most of your answers.

But three, five, or 25 years from now, will we look back on the Christensen era as a disruptive one in the annals of strategic thought, or one in which we woke up and went back to basics?

As Levitt said, “Man lives not by bread alone, but mostly by catchwords.” So it’s important to pick those catchwords with care, and to be clear about what they mean and how they might be applied.

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  •  01/12/2012