The Word is “Discontinuous”

Innovations come in two flavors: continuous and discontinuous. The market decides. There is nothing inherent in the idea itself that discerns which is which. Market research determines the matter.

If you have a market, it is continuous. If not, it is discontinuous. Still, it depends on how you frame the innovation. You can frame a discontinuous innovation as a radical innovation, or a continuous innovation.

Object-oriented programming was once a radical thing. The release of the first object-oriented Windows API settled the matter, because it did little more than add gets and puts, a continuous framing from functional programming. Even today, much of the promise of objects has gone unfulfilled. That has led to a renaissance of the radicals pushing object thinking, with its inherent opposition to gets and puts.

What happened with these shifts from radical to continuous and back to radical was a change in the idea’s vector of differentiation. Every aspect of an idea has a vector of differentiation, which implies that an idea has many vectors of differentiation. In framing we pick, we prioritize, we package, we create a conceptualization, which evolves into a product, and an offer. Every aspect of an offer has a vector of differentiation. This takes care of business model innovation crowd.

Every vector of differentiation has a price-performance, or s-curve. Those business model innovations are a collection of s-curves. S-curves settle the matter of “disruption.” S-curves have been around longer than Christensen. He used them in his books on disruption. Disruption happens when the slope of the entrant’s s-curve exceeds that of the incumbent’s. Such an event happens only after a particular idea has been invested in and  improved to that point.

Such an event can happen to an idea over and over. Why? Implementation matters. If you achieve disruption, but get stalled, so that your aggregate slope falls below that of a disruption, well, ouch! Then, you might just achieve disruption again. Time and money matter, but so does hitting the price-performance targets with the R&D.

I found myself asking when would an innovation achieve disruption, not in terms of when one would see the disruption, but on a timeline, in time.

A first attempt at defining the Time to Disruption.

When will your innovation achieve disruption?

Here I drew a single s-curve. The attacker is near the bottom of the s-cuve. The slope of the attacker’s s-curve is increasing. The incumbent is near the top of the curve. The slope of the incumbent’s s-curve is decreasing. Those two rates are going to intersect. But, when?

I decided to reflect the incumbent’s position around the s-curve’s inflection point and then project it down to the time axis. The time interval between the attacker’s current position on the s-curve, and the incumbent’s projected position represents the Time to Disruption (TTD).

This is a bit nuts, because there should be two s-curves, not one.

Time To Disruption based on two s-curves with projections to Moore's Technology Adoption Lifecycle

Time To Disruption based on two s-curves.

Here I’ve shown the two s-curves, their rates, and the disruptive event. The interval between the attacker’s present, NOW, and the disruptive event, again, constitutes the Time To Disruption. The relative positions of the s-curves is arbitrary, except for the expectations of where an attacker would be in their s-curve and where an incumbent would be on their s-curve. You would expect an incumbent to be in or approaching commoditization, which typically happens below the top of the s-curve, but beyond the inflection point of their s-curve.

The attacker and incumbent would likewise be in different positions on Moore’s technology adoption lifecycle. The disruptive event was projected into both lifecycles. For an attacker, disruption marks an important moment in its efforts in the early market. Disruption would happen before sales would push the market into the tornado, so I’ve just annotated the end of the tornado, and my expectation that disruption would occur as a trigger to a tornado. The incumbent would be in the early market, late market or the aftermarket (not shown).

The point here is that talking about disruption is speculative. A technology isn’t disruptive in the front windshield view of the daily do. A technology is disruptive in a retrospective manner. Use the word “discontinuous” instead.

Technology is the application of thought. Every discipline even street sweeping engages in thought, aka technology, not just high tech. Innovation is an idea, ok an idea undergoing commercialization, or adoption and sale. And, one last swipe at sloppy lexiconizations, only technology is adopted. Products and services are sold, or given away. Products are not adopted.

Yeah, I know, incremental, as in how we deliver it.

The words have their effects in the world, but that is a topic for another day.


5 Responses to “The Word is “Discontinuous””

  1. Innovation Visualization « Product Strategist Says:

    […] A discontinuous innovation becomes disruptive if investment in it (price) generates a performance reflected in a price-performance curve has a slope greater than the technology being replaced. I discussed this in The Word is Discontinuous. […]

  2. CoCreatr Says:

    Thank you for the insights, David. On my radar are two technologies the s-curves of which already intersect and in more areas are about to. The first one seems to have better price-performance where strangers trade with each other, and that is not likely to go away, despite its severe economic side effects, boom/bust and concentration of wealth among them. The second one looks more attractive where people trade within trust networks and it bypasses some of the economic cost of centralized control.

    What is your take on these? What products and technologies would help the second one gain traction?

    Monopoly bank debt money (legal tender by fiat) and

    complementary community currencies.

    In my view, neither will completely dominate in a free market system, as each has its advantages in different context.

    • davidwlocke Says:

      In my Slideshare presentation, I depicted how to represent isolated populations via Poisson distributions or Poisson games. Commoditization is a population feature. The s-curve, or price-performance curve, for a given population will be different for another population. Due to population isolation the two s-curves you are asking about may not intersect at all. If they do not intersect within a single population, they will not disrupt, nor replace each other.

      Complementary community currencies exist in terms of frequent flyer miles, other corporate point systems, and gift cards. They actually cause problems for regulation of your monopoly bank debt money in the case of fiscal and monetary policy.

      In terms of technologies and policies, explore the constraints on money and money systems. Try to determine how long it will take to break those constraints. Pick the nearest term constraint and break that one. You might find this helpful: I’ve written more on constraints, but a quick search didn’t find them.

      If you’ve ever solved a normal form game via the pairwise coordinate-line approach, the row game solves at the highest point along the bottom of the graph, and column game solves at the lowest point along the top of the graph. The value of the game is always at one of these points for both the opponents. The first time I did this, as I was reading Williams’ “The Complete Strategist,” I had graphed a row game, but thought that the opponent would take the top solution and I would take the bottom solution. It gave rise to the idea that the lines between us was the environment, or the future relative to a collection of constraints. All was nougat, however, because theory insists that your solution and that of your opponent are exactly the same. This given a zero-sum game. The point is that such a graph exists in most disciplines, but relative to time, the graphs are asynchronous and discrete. Money has such a graph.

      Banks are working the problems of money. I’m not in banking or money, so I have no such map. Apply all technologies and all systems to the problem that you see. When you have a solution with some business benefit, find a rainmaker that knows the appropriate vertical cold, and have them find you a client. Stage gate the client via Moore’s engagement constraints, and the seats and dollars of the client’s vertical industry. Look for other verticals, so you are doing the bowling alley. The rest will be a matter of time. Don’t rush.

      If it a matter of increasing use of one of these technologies, apply standard marketing approaches since the market now exists. You can also look beyond use to metause. In the software industry, use is first, but soon enough managing use becomes an issue, and by this I do not mean the management role in first tier use. Metause would be characterized by workflow, choregraphy, orchestration, and eliminating the need for professional services supporting use. Metause is thick.

      Gift cards are known to have residual value that is never used. The cards are used to some point and the rest of the value lost or destroyed. There is no way to move value from one community currency to another. A means of aggregation is needed. One of the successes of the Superfund law was its provisions for the reduction of toxic waste. The production of toxics continues unabated, but “waste” was reduced by the creation of a capture and distribution network that aggregated small quantities of toxics that were waste due to the once high cost of aggregating and selling “waste” chemicals where they could be put to productive use. Some large public chemical companies made a lot of money from this program. Small producers still oppose it, because they would have to invest in their operation.

      If you think of money as chemicals, you can find your analogies.

      Cultures have subcultures, so if you look at your two populations, you are seeing two cultures. Explore the structure an substructure of those cultures. Money has a culture. Credit cards have a culture. Forex has a culture. All of these have subcultures. Look for the subcultures. They can be mapped like a topographical map. Where has your technology been adopted? Where has it not been adopted?

    • davidwlocke Says:

      See that SlideShare at

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