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Have a disruptive offering? Here are 5 tips for achieving widespread adoption

January 29, 2012

I was surprised and honored when Fast Company named my CoDesign article on sustaining, breakout, and disruptive innovations one of their 11 best of 2011. One of the best outcomes is that more people have been asking me about how they can be more successful in creating disruptive offerings that achieve widespread adoption. Some of my thoughts are below, with two caveats:

  • Don’t ignore sustaining and breakout innovations! There’s real value in recognizing what type of innovation is right for a given situation. Shooting for a disruptive breakthrough is not always the right strategy.
  • I’m focusing on the product and business itself here. I plan to write about the internal systems and structures required to pull this off in a separate post.

With that, onward!

There's a reason why Square has been targeting food trucks

Companies are attracted to disruptive innovations like moths to a flame. But the challenges are substantial: they’re resource-intensive, require patience, and risky. Potential customers don’t necessarily see the need, understand the solution, or want to change their behavior. Here are 5 tips to get your disruptive offering adopted by the mainstream.

Simplify the need and benefit.

For sustaining and breakout offerings, the benefit of a new product is typically clear: it performs a task faster, better, or cheaper. By contrast, it’s often unclear why people would want to use a disruptive offering. That’s why they commonly start off being dismissed as toys. To progress beyond the tech fanboys who love to play with new stuff, you have to make people understand why they’d want to use your novel product. One technique to do so is to present it as though it’s for a specific pain point, even if it does much more. In other words, to sell one specific value proposition. TiVo, when it first came out, was revolutionary: It could pause and rewind live TV. It could record whole programs at the touch of a button, without the need for videotapes. The amazing machine could even recommend programming based on past shows they enjoyed. But a big part of their marketing campaign focused on a much more basic, easily understood benefit: you could skip commercials. That, people got right away; the rest, they discovered to their delight over time.

Get people to experience it – not just see or hear about it.

For customers to understand a new solution, a helpful rule of thumb is that for sustaining products, you need to hear it, for breakout products you need to see it, and for disruptive innovations, you need to experience it.  When Twitter first came out, most people who heard about it didn’t get it. Even when friends showed them what it was and how they used it, to many it just seemed like a weird, boring diversion. Why would I care what random people had for lunch? This sentiment still persists for many. Only when people sign up and try it out do they typically “get it” – the breaking news, the subtle feeling of connection to strangers, the discovery of cool content, the chance encounters. That’s one reason why lowering the barriers to experience is such a priority for Twitter – from the logged out user, to distributing shared links broadly, to the more approachable new redesign.

Minimize the behavior change required.

Adopting a new technology can be daunting. When you’re the creator, it’s easy to forget that disruptive offerings are, well… disruptive. Habits, current systems, and the status quo are powerful and comforting. The less jarring a new innovation, the better. Take cars with electric engines. People are reluctant to adopt a new type of vehicle that requires them to plug it in, and that doesn’t allow them to just pull into a gas station for a quick fill-up. Gas-electric hybrids, which require minimal behavior change for users, are a much easier sell.

Mask it as something familiar.

The more revolutionary the product, the more familiar you should make it appear. That’s why microwaves look like toaster ovens, CDs evoke LPs, and early cell phones bore resemblance to walkie-talkies. The trick is striking the right balance – for innovations that are more easily understandable, you can and should play with form more to highlight its differences from existing offerings. It does little good to have your new, lighter broom look like just another broom.

Appeal to non-users first.

By default, companies compete with each other for users. But if people have an existing solution, it can be harder to convince them to switch solutions than to garner adoption from people who have traditionally fallen outside a technology’s core user base. Square has done an amazing job of targeting such fringe users. They’ve focused on embedding themselves into farmer’s markets, craft fairs, and food trucks – merchants that haven’t traditionally accepted credit cards. They’re successfully borrowing a page from Clayton Christensen’s work. Such a strategy allows disruptive new entrants to sneak up on incumbents by appealing first to segments they neglect – groups of people who don’t already use their product and have a different set of requirements.

Companies rightfully seek disruptive innovations to create lasting growth and competitive advantage. But they need to find ways to minimize the disruption to users. Hopefully these tips will help.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2012 3:10 pm

    Great stuff to keep in mind. Thanks. So easy to overlook some of these – laying them out clearly is very helpful. Great examples too.

  2. conradwai permalink*
    February 10, 2012 8:01 am

    Thanks Jono!

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