The Problem with ‘Disruptive Technologies’

Some recurring questions asked off founders of  technology start-ups are:
What is the ‘significant problem’ that your innovation (technology)  solves? What ‘pain point’ does it address for potential customers?
What’s the proof that people want your ‘solution’?
Followed quickly by how will your technology  make us all money. Lots of it. And quick!

disruptive technologies


These are curious questions to answer if you think about it.

Take Twitter, what significant problem would its founders have said it solved if they were asked back in 2006?

Twitter is a browser based  technology that enables you to send and read short  140 character messages called “tweets” to people you may or may not know.

It hardly seems compelling or clear that Twitter was  solving an obvious ‘problem’ for potential ‘customers’. But yet here we are nearly 10 years on and reports are now putting Twitter’s market value at $30 Billion (with observations that it may not be yet ‘fully realised’).

When the founders of Twitter first wrote about their technology to investors and their board in the early days of Twitter, did they mention its potential impact on the media landscape?  Or its potential  influence on civil revolutions , the possibly way the technology  might be used by individuals to bring a human face to conflict or its impact on the political landscape?  Perhaps they did – but I wager not.

That’s  the thing about ‘disruptive technologies’ they can change how we do business, think, act and even how we go about our day to day lives. If a technology is truly ‘disruptive’ it is highly likely that it  will end up being used by people (customers) in ways the founders of the technology never thought possible.

There are those who critique the  whole concept of ‘disruption” as expressed by Jill Lephore in The New Yorker last year and elaborated on by Danny Crichton in TechCrunch. Both articles are worth a read.

It was Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen, who popularized the concept of ‘disruptive technologies’ in the book The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997.  In 1995 he  wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review with Joseph L. Bower about the issue of  disruptive technologies and more importantly about the dangers of companies  staying “too close to customers” and becoming blinded about what technologies customers really want…and need.

As Christensen and Bower caution:

“managers must beware of ignoring new technologies that don’t initially meet the needs of their mainstream customers.”


“managers can avoid missing the next wave by paying careful attention to potentially disruptive technologies that do not meet current customers’ needs.”

For tech start-ups creating a true ‘disruptive technology’  can be a bit like casting a stone across the water.  You can share to all those interested (investors) where you believe the first likely splash point is (read: problem your  technologies ‘solves’) and you can even  hint at the potential  ripples it may  create but as to how far reaching these ripples will actually be and their impact, that can sometimes be anyone’s guess.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

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