Disruptive Only In a Rear-View Mirror

Interesting quote from Clayton Christensen (via Bryce.vc and this presentation):

Not only are the market applications for disruptive technologies unknown at the time of their development, they are unknowable.

A couple of days ago Chris Dixon wrote the following:

New startup ideas are all around you, in the improvised behaviors of people you know. It takes a keen product eye, however, to notice these improvisational behaviors and recognize which ones are worthy of being developed into standalone products.

He referenced how Instagram, which had both filters and sharing, ate Hipstamatic’s lunch, which only had filters.

Dixon’s comment, though, suffers from hindsight and surviver’s bias. We only know Instagram is more popular because we know Instagram is more popular. Rewind a year or so and who really knows what the outcome will be.

To paraphrase Christensen, no one can know whether the technology will be disruptive before it is.

UPDATE: I suggest reading the comments. Andy and I have a pretty good conversation there that extends the post nicely.

4 thoughts on “Disruptive Only In a Rear-View Mirror

  1. cdixons example is hindsight, but his point, seems to me, was really that you have a better chance in new market products that come out observing improvised behaviour.

    im guessing this probably doesnt apply to “low end disruptions”.

    • If that’s his point then he is pointing out the obvious. Aren’t they all “improvised behaviors”? Hipstomatic was improvised behavior (transforming low-fi-like photos used to require Photoshop skills.) He also mentions WordPress, which took advantage of improvised behavior (writing raw html and posting it to a web site). powerOne, email, eBay, Kickstarter, airbnb they are all improvised behaviors. All new ideas are built off some level of improvised behavior.

      The key statement to me was “It takes a keen product eye recognize which ones are worthy of being developed into standalone products.” It doesn’t take a keen eye at all. We just discuss the ones that didn’t fail so they seem like a keen eye invented them (including all the ones I listed above).


      • hmm – it seems to me there is still some sort of keen eye involved – to recognize that combining two previously more difficult and expensive tasks – low-fi photo making + easy social sharing to build a new product that competes against non-consumption.

        But, I agree with you that almost all examples are really on a continuum of improvised behavior :).

        I still don’t understand why you don’t think it takes a keen eye though ?

        I had a very similar friendly argument with my coworker the other day..and I was arguing closer to your points ..and then he asked me if I thought Jack Dorsey / Square was done by accident or insight ..and so I had to concede because it seems that it is more insight.

        • I might compare it to a ball player that bats .300 every year. He can do it and doesn’t understand why everyone else can’t. Since I see improvised behavior everywhere it is hard for me to understand that some people can’t see them.

          Given that, It seems to me that we all have the ability to spot these differences. Some might just need a little training (I have been practicing my entire life). I think the rate of business starts in this country and around the world bares that out. I think we all have the ability to make a living for ourselves if we try hard enough and in order to devise a business means we see improvised behavior somewhere.

          So the key then is the word “keen”. I don’t believe there is anything in the word that defines size of opportunity recognized, which clearly Jack Dorsey has a keen eye for seeing large opportunities. It means that it takes a special eye to see improvised behavior. And I’m not convinced that it takes a special eye. I think we all have the ability.

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