Is there an inverse to the Innovator’s Dilemma?


Roughly speaking, the innovator’s dilemma happens when a product progressively gets more and more advanced features, to the point that it misses out (by listening to customers) on an entire new opportunity. At that point, a simpler, competing product can come into play and make large gains.

But what happens when a company is generally aware of the Innovator’s Dilemma and tries to compensate? It seems like second order effects might come into their own. A product widely known for being (and remaining) minimalist is exposed to attacks from deliberate enhancements and related complexificaiton of competitive products. As the market gets more mature, the steadfastly-simple market leader gets left behind. In a sense, it’s a role reversal from what Clayton Christensen describes. But can it work out the same in the end? Please comment. -m

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One Reply to “Is there an inverse to the Innovator’s Dilemma?”

  1. The essence of the dilemma is “do I focus on additional features that my current customers will pay for or on making it simpler/cheaper so that I can find lots more new customers?” Or to put it another way, do I compete for existing consumers or go after the non-consumers?”

    There’s no Law of Nature saying that minimalist products will disrupt complex ones, so the answer to the Dilemma depends on the specific technology and market. For example, as a Microsoft stakeholder I’m not terribly worried about the various alternatives to Office disrupting it in the Christensen sense — there are no non-consumers of wordprocessors and spreadsheet programs out there. There might be people who value a simpler UI, smoother integration over the Web, etc. but those are features to compete on (that take a lot of work to get right), not low-end disruptors such as PCs/Wordperfect was to Wang dedicated wordprocessors back in the ’80s.

    “Steadfastly simple” technology only works for niches. For example, command line shells are still beloved by *ix geeks, but nobody else AFAIK. Windows isn’t losing mindshare/marketshare to simple/cheap/standardized Linux, it’s losing it to glitzy/somewhat pricey/proprietary Apple stuff. Is that a refutation of Christensen? I don’t think so; there just isn’t a large group of people locked out of the current feature/price/complexity point, so “competing against non-consumption” isn’t a viable option.

    “Steadfastly simple” *interfaces are another matter. The iPhone is a clear example of how something that is steadfastly simple to *use* can disrupt a market. It has no features that haven’t been available on high-end Windows Mobile or Nokia smartphones for awhile, but it makes those features so much more accessible to a mainstream user that it got massive acceptance. That *was* competing against non-consumption, appealing to people who didn’t have smartphones and those who did but were put off by their complexity. The iPhone is obviously not a steadfastly simple piece of technology, however.

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