Eruptive Innovation Trumps Disruptive Innovation

Over the last 35 years, I’ve researched the fields of innovation, leadership, strategy, and many related areas by reading hundreds of excellent books and thousands of articles, and most important, talking with literally thousands of business executives and top managers.Innovation Hierarchy

I challenge you to find an executive of a Fortune 500 company who disputes that innovation is the fuel for growth. On the other hand, with a few exceptions, almost all rate their own companies poorly at it. And rightly so. Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor in their book The Innovator’s Solution report: “Study after study concludes that about 90 percent of all publicly traded companies have proved themselves unable to sustain for more than a few years a growth trajectory that creates above-average shareholder returns.”

Business gurus speak of quite a few levels of innovation. From my research, I’ve developed a new framework that I call the Innovation Hierarchy. We’re all familiar with the first four levels of the Innovation Hierarchy:

  • Level One is Sustaining Innovation: Regular improvements that keep you moving forward, but not necessarily ahead of the competition. Keeping up with the Bezos, so to speak.
  • Level Two is Incremental Innovation: Medium-sized improvements that benefit both your customers and your company. This can keep you slightly ahead of the competition, or if you are behind, help you catch up a bit. But, as shown in my previous cartoon, if a rogue wave of innovation hits your industry, you’re sunk.
  • Level Three is Breakthrough Innovation: This is not based on novelty. As I define it, “breakthrough” results in step-change in both customer value and a company’s financial performance.
  • Level Four is Disruptive Innovation: Coined and defined by Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School in 1995, it is game-change in an industry or a field such as education or health care. It is often created by providing the same or much better value to customers at a massively lower cost and price.

There is no question that disruptive innovation can change the rules of an entire industry, and rapidly create new winners and losers. Up until now, it has been the dream of any business wanting to win big. I would argue, though, that there is yet a higher level of innovation – a fifth level of the Innovation Hierarchy …

  • Level Five is Eruptive Innovation: It doesn’t just change an industry. It creates change so big and broad that it affects the world, the planet, society at large. History is replete with hundreds of eruptive innovations. Most advancements of mankind were due to one. Examples include fire, wheel, agriculture, ship, railroad, automobile, semiconductor, computer, robot, Internet, Cloud, and the smart phone. These do not just change industries; they change humanity.

The value of any framework is that it serves as a gauge to help you understand where you are and as a guide to show you what more you can achieve. Many businesses set their sights on achieving Breakthrough Innovation but most accept Incremental Innovation as “good enough.” After all, achieving Breakthrough Innovation takes vision and the ability to think and act “out of the box.” Yet beyond Breakthrough, there is no question that Disruptive Innovation can change the rules of an entire industry, and rapidly create new winners and losers. Until now, Disruptive Innovation has been the dream of any business wanting to really win big. Yet few businesses aggressively seek the even higher level of Eruptive Innovation. Truly visionary business leaders accept nothing less than Eruptive Innovation.

So what level of innovation is your company striving to achieve?

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