Surviving Disruptive Innovations

March 15, 2013 Business and Management 20 comments

Surviving Disruptive Innovations
Was Borders a victim of Disruptive Innovation? (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Tower Records. Borders. Kodak. Maybe even Research In Motion (RIM)?

The list of casualties to disruptive innovations grow longer each day. By clinging to the status quo and failing to recognise the threats of disruptive consumer behaviours, technologies, or business models, these companies have sounded their own death knell.

Here in Singapore, disruptive retail models like Carousell, Zalora, and Taobao have accelerated the demise of brick and mortar fashion retailers in many Orchard Road and Marina Square shopping centres.

(To understand what disruptive innovations are, read my book review of The Innovator’s Dilemma.)

To escape their inevitable fate, the prescription has often been for incumbents to develop their own disruptions before it’s too late to reap the rewards of being a part of new, high growth markets.

However, is it really that simple to “out-disrupt” your disrupters?

3 Steps to Bypass Disrupters

In a thought provoking article in Harvard Business Review, Maxwell Wessel and Clayton Christensen (the author of the Innovator’s Dilemma) proposed a three-step process for incumbents to outmaneuver impending disrupters. The steps are as follows:

  1. Identify the strengths of your disrupter’s business model;
  2. Identify your own relative advantages; and
  3. Evaluate the conditions that help or hinder the disrupter from co-opting your current advantages in the future.

From the above, one could determine what is known as the extendable core. These are aspects of a disrupter’s business model which allow them to maintain a performance advantage as they creep upmarket in search of more and more customers. For example, the extendable core of an online retailer like Amazon (immediate cash collection, superior logistics and warehousing) allowed it to extend from selling books to other physical and digital products.

In a sense, the extendable core tells us what customers a disrupter may or may not attract.

Keeping Disrupters at Bay

To discern how disrupters may upset incumbents – and how they could be held at bay – we should ask ourselves two questions:

1) What jobs do customers want to perform?

To find out what your customers truly want, conduct interviews, surveys, focus groups and behavioural observations with them. Use your findings to uncover current customer interactions and patterns. This often requires fairly in-depth and accurate research.

You may also wish to spend a day or two walking through your business. Assume the guise of your customer and determine what goes through his/her mind during the process of consumption.

2) What must change for my advantages to evaporate?

To do so, consider Wessel and Christensen’s Five Barriers to Disruption and how they fit into your business:

  1. The momentum barrier: Prevailing behaviours by customers which make it difficult to overturn the status quo;
  2. The tech-implementation barrier: How difficult it is for newcomers to implement a particular technology which is already available;
  3. The ecosystem barrier: Current relationships, supply chains and integrated systems which require a change in the business environment to overcome;
  4. The new-technologies barrier:  Technology needed to change the competitive landscape that is yet to exist; and
  5. The business model barrier: Where the disrupter would have to invest in assets and infrastructure that mirror your cost structure.

Once the above two questions are probed in a fair amount detail, you should be able to determine where you should focus future efforts in growth and innovation to turn the tides in your favour.

These are areas where disrupters are unable to capitalise on, or lack the advantages available to existing players like yourself. By strengthening your business in these areas, you can reduce the likelihood of your disrupter upsetting your apple cart.

Survivors and Casualties of Disruption

To illustrate the above, let us look at some local examples.

Survivor: The Movie Business

First, the movie business.

The introduction of DVDs and streaming video services did not eliminate cinema halls as patrons valued the “big screen”, superior sound systems and social advantages which theatres conferred. Here, momentum and business model barriers gave existing operators an advantage.

Riding on this observation, cinema operators expanded their theatres to multiplexes, invested in state-of-the-art digital technology, and improved their seats. Examples include Golden Village and Shaw Theatres.

Survivor: Major Supermarkets

In Singapore, major supermarkets like Fairprice provide another positive example.

To compete against online grocers, they focused on providing better quality perishables, more convenient locations (eg co-locating with petrol kiosks), and longer operating hours.

Unlike the US or other countries, e-commerce couldn’t really take off for groceries due to the momentum barriers here. Shopping is a pleasurable way to escape our cramped apartment homes and searing tropical heat. Ecosystem barriers also exist –  the delivery of large packages to homes are difficult while transport is relatively cheap and convenient.

Casualty: Music CD Retailers

On the flip side, music CDs could not survive the onslaught of digital streaming music as the cost and convenience benefits of the latter far outweighed the former.

With everybody carrying a smartphone (or two), it doesn’t make sense for one to lug around a separate device for music. Here, disrupters had advantages in new-technologies (superior delivery), business model (lower costs), and ecosystem (ready market of suppliers).

Casualty: Major Book Stores

The demise of major book stores like MPH, Borders and Page One were accelerated by online book retailers and the availability of e-books that can be read from tablets, smartphones and e-book readers (like the Kindle). Our excellent public libraries also made it less necessary for avid readers to purchase books.

While there are still dedicated groups of people who love physical book stores (like yours truly), the momentum and business model barriers of this business are fast eroding.

To survive disruptions, book stores may want to organise activities such as book clubs, reading groups, storytelling sessions and thematic events to build communities. Players like Kinokuniya and Books Actually have caught on to this, sustaining themselves in a tough retail environment. Hopefully, these affiliated actions could help reposition the book store from just a place to buy books to a sanctuary for the literary senses.

By Walter
Founder of Cooler Insights, I am a geek marketer with almost 24 years of senior management experience in marketing, public relations and strategic planning. Since becoming an entrepreneur 5 years ago, my team and I have helped 58 companies and over 2,200 trainees in digital marketing, focusing on content, social media and brand storytelling.


  1. Walter, I agree with your points except for online supermarket shopping. Some of us do not have the time to pick up groceries frequently, and the ones in town (where we live) tend to have long queues. Also, we prefer getting heavy goods like rice delivered to us, since we’re not getting younger 🙂

    Redmart, which we started using first, operates like Amazon, having its own inventory of goods and partnering with niche providers. We have had no issues with them save for a major hiccup when they moved warehouses. We can reject or get refunds for faulty goods.

    Honestbee does away with the need for inventory and warehousing, as they rely on people to shop for the groceries at regular supermarkets near your home and then deliver them. Thus they are not competing with supermarkets but supporting them. When the supermarket runs out of stock, the Honestbee shopper contacts us to check if they can buy a substitute instead.

    We also started ordering organic food occasionally from Opentaste, which cuts out the middleman and thus is able to offer lower prices. In short, we use three different online services with three different business models.

    So there is value in buying groceries online – if you are short of time, don’t want to break your back, or want better value for certain items.

    1. Wow, thanks Vanessa for the comment! This is pure gold to me, considering the number of spam comments I keep getting. We tried Honestbee too and it has worked out mostly for us although sometimes the gaps in the order can be a little irritating.

      Talking about breaking back, I still remember the day I bought an 11 kg bag of rice (1 kg is free) from NTUC Fairprice in Bukit Merah, lugged it to the bus interchange, and carried it back home. Great achievement although I wouldn’t do it all the time. Maybe, its because I still enjoy the experience of browsing the supermarket for its sensorial appeal.

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