The Innovator’s Guide to Growth: Putting Disruptive Innovation to Work

By Scott D. Anthony, Mark W. Johnson, Joseph V. Sinfield, and Elizabeth J. Altman
Harvard Business Press, 2008, 320 pages

Leadership and innovation have been the most popular management topics in academic research and business media over the past few years, and Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen’s theories of disruptive innovation have been the hottest ideas in this hot area. Now, with The Innovator’s Guide to Growth: Putting Disruptive Innovation to Work, a team of two consultants, an academic, and a business practitioner have produced a handbook — with a foreword by Christensen — that extends the theories to show how an established organization can grow through disruption. Scott D. Anthony and Mark W. Johnson are president and chairman/cofounder, respectively, of Innosight, a consulting company formed by Christensen and his associates to promote the concept. Joseph V. Sinfield is a senior partner of Innosight, as well as an assistant professor of civil engineering at Purdue University, and Elizabeth J. Altman is vice president of strategy and business development for Motorola Mobile Devices.

The great attraction of disruptive innovation theory is not only its basis in solid re­search, but also the compelling reasons it provides for the failures of large, successful organizations to in­novate and to protect themselves from disruptive attacks launched by much smaller competitors. Management complacency and incompetence, the perennial reasons given for this failure, are not a sufficient explanation. Clayton Christensen showed how energetic, competent managers can be led astray by following the best management advice and paying too much attention to their customers. The result is incremental innovation and, as companies at­tempt to go up-market to produce higher-margin products, a tendency to “overshoot” customer needs, open­ing the door for new competitors to take away market share by making cheaper, cruder products that are “good enough.”

The Innovator’s Guide to Growth is a model of clarity, presented in four sections: identifying opportunities, formulating and shaping ideas, building the business, and building capabilities. Chapters are devoted to each of the components of these topics. Opportunities, for example, come from identifying non-consumers — potential customers whose demands have been overshot by the product — and from studying the real needs that those people want the product or service to fulfill. Each of the book’s sections contains clues to a disruptive product offering that might meet a hitherto unfilled need. The book includes useful questionnaires, and each chapter concludes with a summary, application exercises, and a list of “tips and tricks.”

And yet, although one can’t disagree with anything the book says, it lacks the sense of excitement and discovery of three predecessor volumes that Christensen coauthored with colleagues. Why should this be? In part it’s because the advice is aimed at as broad a readership as possible, and is designed to be context free. This, in turn, affects the language used. English philosopher Gilbert Ryle made a distinction between what he called task or action verbs and achievement or success verbs. Kick and hunt are task verbs (they refer to doing something); score and find are their achievement counterparts (they refer to goals, desirable outcomes). The Innovator’s Guide to Growth is packed with achievement verbs — identify, develop, formulate, build, master — that sound admirable but offer no clue as to how to accomplish them in specific contexts. This problem is endemic to management handbooks and re­flects the limitations of the how-to genre more than any particular shortcomings on the part of the authors.

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