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Book Review: The Innovator’s Dilemma

Book Review: The Innovator’s Dilemma

| On 15, Apr 1999

Reviewed by Ellen Domb
Title: The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail
Author: Clayton M. Christensen
Publisher: Harvard Business School Press
ISBN: 0-87584-585-1
Cost: $27.50. 224 pages, hardback
Order from: Bookstores or publisher,

The Innovator’s Dilemma is not a a TRIZ book. It is a “mainstream” business book, named as one of the most influential books of the year by Business Week magazine. I am including it in The TRIZ Journal’s book reviews, because it deals with 2 questions that are frequently asked in TRIZ classes

Are there any examples of the patterns of evolution using modern inventions?
What happens to innovative ideas? Why do they not just take over?

The author, Clayton Christensen, develops the thesis that technology evolution has 2 arenas—disruptive technology and sustaining technology. Companies that succeed with disruptive technology are virtually always new companies, or those new to the technology, whereas the traditional competitors are the ones that succeed with sustaining technologies.

Disruptive technologies succeed by going into non-conventional markets and applications. Sustaining technologies succeed by improving the technology of their traditional markets.

Christensen draws his examples from a wide variety of industries, and includes services and business concepts as well as products. Using the analogy of biologists studying genetics using the mayfly, since a generation is only a day long, he does extensive analysis of the fast-moving disk drive industry to make his points.

The technology developed by size:

14-inch drives for mainframe computers

8-inch drives for mini-computers

5.25 and 3.5-inch drives for personal computers,

2.5-inch drives for notebook computers

1.8-inch drives used in heart monitors and automobile control systems

with accompanying development of the size of the magnetic material on the disc and the size and nature of the sensor and sensor controller. Anyone interested in the TRIZ patterns of evolution will find this work fascinating, as the patterns of “go to micro-levels”, “increase dynamics”, and “use fields instead of mechanical devices” emerge. With the exception of the14-inch drive, which was developed by mainframe companies, each of the subsequent technologies was developed by an outsider to the industry, who could not get the attention of the industry, who found a new technology being developed that needed the new capability.

The business model is equally fascinating, as he traces the history of disruptive and sustaining technologies in fields as diverse as earthmoving equipment, discount retail sales (Korvettes created the model in 1954. Why did Kresge succeed in becoming K-Mart, when Woolworth failed to master the new model? Why was Dayton-Hudson the only traditional department store to make the change, with its Target stores?) and many aspects of the computer industry, in addition to disk drives.

Stories of famous companies such as Honda vs. Harley Davidson in small motorcycles, Hewlett Packard’s move from instrumentation to computers, Digital Equipment Company’s rise and fall, are well-told, and, in a few cases where the data contradict his thesis, he points out the discrepancies and speculates on the reasons, instead of hiding the situation.

Those TRIZ practitioners trying to bring technology forecasting or directed evolution into active business environments will benefit greatly from the guidance of The Innovator’s Dilemma in knowing how to get the new concepts to the right markets so they succeed not just as inventions but as businesses. TRIZ teachers and students will fulfill their desire for “real” data from products and services with which they are familiar.

Readers: please use our feedback form, or a letter to the editor, to let us know if you want to see more of this kind of book in our reviews. Thanks!–Ellen Domb,