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Are You a Disruptor or a Destructor? A Complete Guide to Innovation for Today's Leaders Two sides to the innovation coin will make or break your business. Understand disruptive and destructive innovation before attempting to shake up the market.

By Scott Deming Edited by Micah Zimmerman

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In today's rapidly evolving business landscape, the word "innovation" gets thrown around quite a bit. However, it's crucial for leaders, especially those in C-suite roles, to grasp the nuanced differences between Disruptive Innovation and Destructive Innovation. Despite the similarity in names, they are not interchangeable.

Several years ago, I was one of five keynote speakers at the Asian Disruptive Leadership Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The day before the event, they held a press conference with the speakers at a table and the media asking questions from the room. A young man directed a question to me. He asked, "Mr. Deming, can you tell us the difference between disruptive and destructive innovation?" In a few words, and more conversationally, I described it as follows.

Related: Disruption vs. Innovation: Defining Success

What is disruptive innovation?

Disruptive Innovation is a term coined by Clayton Christensen in 1997. It refers to a process where a smaller company, often with fewer resources, manages to challenge established industry leaders. The disruptors do this by targeting overlooked market segments or creating new markets altogether. Over time, these disruptors refine their products or services and start attracting a broader audience, eventually undermining the existing market leaders.

Related: Disruption Is More Than the Buzzword It's Become

Some examples:

  • Amazon: Started as an online bookstore, now it's reshaping retail, logistics, cloud computing — you name it.
  • Google: Moved from search engine to digital advertising titan, and now it's into everything from autonomous cars to healthcare.
  • Tesla: Electric cars used to be a joke. Now, Tesla's forced the entire auto industry to go electric or go home.
  • Uber: Decimated the traditional taxi industry by making ridesharing accessible, affordable, and convenient.
  • Spotify: Revolutionized music consumption, shifting the focus from album sales to streaming subscriptions.

Key characteristics of disruptive innovators:

  • Targets niche markets initially.
  • Creates accessibility, usually through lower costs or simplicity.
  • Gradually gains market share.
  • Alters the competitive landscape. Builds new opportunities.
  • Adds value to the market.
  • Promotes sustainable growth.

Why these matter

These innovators didn't just create products; they created markets and shifted paradigms. They started with niche audiences and scaled up, eventually disrupting and often dominating their industries.

So, the lesson here? Be the Amazon or Tesla in your space. Think about the niches that are overlooked and how you can bring them to the forefront. It's not just about technology; it's about vision and having the courage to redefine an industry.

Related: How to Reject the Status Quo and Redefine Your Success

What is destructive innovation?

On the flip side, Destructive Innovation refers to technologies or practices that harm or make existing models obsolete without adding significant value to the industry or consumers. In some cases, they may offer short-term gains, but the long-term ramifications could be detrimental. Destructive innovators often leave a trail of unintended consequences.

Some examples:

  • Sold pet supplies online, but its unsustainable business model led to its collapse and had repercussions across e-commerce.
  • Lehman Brothers: Engaged in risky financial practices that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis.
  • MySpace: Tried to monetize too aggressively with ads, which deteriorated user experience and opened the door for Facebook.
  • Kodak: Introduced the digital camera but failed to adapt, essentially disrupting its own film business without a sustainable digital strategy.

Related: Don't Make the Same Mistake Leaders at Kodak, Blockbuster and Xerox Made When Disruption Comes to Your Industry

Key characteristics of destructive innovators:

  • Undermines existing value networks.
  • This could lead to job losses or reduced industry growth.
  • Risks long-term damage.
  • May result in ethical or social issues.
  • Could pigeonhole you as a short-term opportunist.
  • Offers little or no long-term value addition.

Why these matter

These companies either disrupted without adding lasting value or operated in ways that had negative long-term impacts. The key takeaway here is that innovation without sustainability or ethical considerations can often lead to destructive outcomes.

Understanding these examples can be a cautionary guide. It reminds us that innovation shouldn't just be groundbreaking; it must be responsible and sustainable to be truly transformative.

Why the difference matters

So, why should you care about the difference? Well, the path you choose has profound implications for your business model, market positioning, and long-term sustainability. Whether you're a seasoned executive, a budding entrepreneur or a forward-thinking sales director, understanding these terms can help you steer your company in the direction that leads to long-term success rather than a short-lived buzz.

Your choice could be the difference between leaving a legacy of growth and innovation or just becoming a cautionary tale in someone else's keynote. So, the question isn't if you should disrupt, but how will you disrupt responsibly and effectively?

Scott Deming

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Speaker, Trainer, Author

Scott Deming brings 30+ years of corporate expertise in leadership, branding, and customer experience. Known for his transformative keynote speeches and training, Scott has helped diverse industries evolve their cultures and boost growth. Visit to learn more.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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