Sustaining and Disruptive Innovation: Is One Better?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Innovator's Dilemma" by Clayton M. Christensen. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What are sustaining and disruptive innovation? What is the difference between sustaining and disruptive innovation?

Sustaining and disruptive innovation are different strategies firms can employ to bring new products to market. Sustaining innovations secure share in the current market while disruptive innovations shake up the market.

Read on to better understand the difference between sustaining and disruptive innovation.

Sustaining and Disruptive Innovation

There are two types of technological innovations to compare: sustaining technology vs disruptive technology. 

1) Sustaining innovations simply improve upon the performance of the industry’s existing products, thus catering to the established market. This represents the majority of technological advancements in any industry. Most companies that produce goods follow a fairly consistent trajectory of improving their products: They adopt technological advancements as they become available, and they release updated versions of their products with the new improvements.

Some sustaining innovations are simple changes, while others are technologically complex. Regardless, no matter how complicated the change, established companies almost always lead their industries in producing and marketing sustaining innovations. 

2) Disruptive innovations disrupt the performance improvement trajectory. These technologies don’t appeal to existing customers—instead, they open up an entirely new market. 

Disruptive innovations take many forms: Some are technologically advanced, while others are simple reconfigurations that offer new features. Some disruptive innovations invade markets like wildfire, while others take years or decades to take hold. No matter what the disruptive innovation is, entrant firms—or startups—almost always become the dominant forces in producing and selling it. 

We’ll take a closer look at sustaining technology vs disruptive technology and how these two types of changes impacted established and entrant firms in the disk drive industry. In the context of this book, established firms will refer to companies that existed before a given technological change, and entrant firms will refer to companies that started up at the same time the innovation was emerging. 

Sustaining and Disruptive Innovation: Is One Better?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Clayton M. Christensen's "The Innovator's Dilemma" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full The Innovator's Dilemma summary :

  • Christensen's famous theory of disruptive innovation
  • Why incumbent companies often ignore the disruptive threat, then move too slowly once the threat becomes obvious
  • How you can disrupt entire industries yourself

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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