Ever since Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen first championed the theory of disruptive innovation in the 1990s, business leaders and entrepreneurs have been interested in harnessing the power of disruption.

In the online course Disruptive Strategy, Christensen describes disruptive innovation as the process by which smaller companies with fewer resources challenge established or incumbent businesses by addressing an underserved need in the market. This approach to innovation can be highly successful for young businesses or those with new products, as it allows them to gain an advantage over large competitors they’d otherwise struggle to compete with.

With the right skills and knowledge, business professionals can formulate and execute winning strategies and use disruption to their advantage. Below are key skills needed for successful disruptive strategies, along with ways to develop them.


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Disruptive Strategy Skills

1. An Ability to Spot Opportunities

Christensen believed that entrants typically win disruptive battles while incumbents win sustaining battles. For this reason, entrepreneurs who spot business models ripe for disruption are well-positioned to compete.

Entrepreneurs can identify disruption in their industry early by studying the market and determining whether opportunities for either low-end or new-market disruption exist.

  • Low-end disruption occurs when customers at the low end of the market for an existing product or service are overserved, creating an opportunity for an entrepreneur with a discounted offering with “good enough” performance to enter the market.
  • New-market disruption occurs when customers don’t use an existing product or service because they lack the money or skill to do so. As a result, an opportunity exists for an entrepreneur to introduce an offering that reduces performance in terms of traditional attributes but improves performance in new attributes, like simplicity or convenience.

Leaders looking for a competitive edge in the marketplace must constantly assess the landscape to find these opportunities.

2. Customer Insights Skills

To identify opportunities for disruption, entrepreneurs and business leaders must understand customers’ needs and evaluate their underlying motivations for purchasing a product or service. Doing so is essential to formulate innovative strategies that appeal to potential customers.

To develop customer insights skills, entrepreneurs can use the jobs to be done framework—pioneered by Christensen—to discover the problem a customer is trying to solve by using a product or service. This framework states that rather than buying a product or service, a customer hires it to perform a particular job.

Some of the most effective methods for discovering jobs to be done include:

  • Reflecting deeply on personal experiences
  • Observing current customers and conducting user interviews
  • Discovering why former customers left
  • Identifying workarounds or compensating behaviors customers use to get a job done currently
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3. Knowing When to Use the Right Strategy

Beyond defining a clear strategy to address an underserved need in the market, a key aspect of successful disruptive innovation is knowing how and when to use it.

In the early phases of a company or product’s life, entrepreneurs and business leaders should ensure employees feel empowered to surface and elevate new ideas. This is called an emergent strategy, or one that arises spontaneously from ideas generated by an organization’s members.

Once a profitable strategy is clear, entrepreneurs should transition to a deliberate strategy—one that arises from conscious, organized action. At this point, the company is now in a sustaining phase, and effective execution is critical.

Related: Emergent vs. Deliberate Strategy: How & When to Use Each

Knowing when to leverage an emergent or deliberate strategy is critical to setting your business’s trajectory. In general, an emergent strategy is most effective during periods of uncertainty. Once a promising strategy is established, your business should shift to a deliberate strategy that focuses on systematically achieving goals and maintaining growth.

Who Needs Disruptive Strategy Skills?

Disruptive strategy skills can be an incredibly powerful asset throughout your career. While anyone working in business can benefit from developing these and other innovation-related skills, those with the most potential to benefit include:

  • Business leaders: As a business leader, you steer the overarching direction of your company. Firmly developing the skills above can empower you to identify areas to expand or pivot your business by acting as a disruptor. It can also enable you to identify threats to your incumbency and develop a plan to handle disruption and preserve your business.
  • Strategists: Whether you’re employed by a single firm, or work as a consultant for multiple firms, disruptive strategy skills can help you develop valuable strategies that your employer or clients can use to either disrupt or avoid being disrupted.
  • Aspiring entrepreneurs: The skills above are especially powerful for entrepreneurs in the process of developing and executing business strategies. By mastering disruptive strategy frameworks—such as jobs to be done—you can distill deeper insights into what spurs customers’ actions and how they make buying decisions. You can also identify industries or segments ripe for disruption.
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Leveraging the Power of Disruption

With the right skills, you can harness the power of disruptive innovation to make waves in your market.

There are many ways to develop these skills. Reading books and articles on disruptive strategy, innovation, and entrepreneurship is a great start. One of the best ways to develop your knowledge and put it to use is to enroll in a course centered on entrepreneurship and business strategy, such as Disruptive Strategy.

Related: How to Choose the Right Business Strategy Course

During the course, learners become fluent in Christensen’s disruptive innovation theory and discover customer jobs to be done to craft winning strategies.

Do you want to learn more about different strategies that businesses can leverage to grow and succeed? Our six-week online course Disruptive Strategy can equip you with the tools, frameworks, and intuition to develop executive-level strategy and organize for innovation.

Tim Stobierski

About the Author

Tim Stobierski is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Harvard Business School Online.