Can Disruptive Innovation Be Good?

We’ve talked about parallel innovation: where new ideas, allowed to evolve without restriction, can cause system change from the outside.

Sometimes parallel innovation can also be “disruptive innovation.” Clayton Christensen describes this as a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.

Some examples of disruptive innovation include:


Mainframe and mini computers 

Integrated steel mills

Fixed phone lines

Four-year colleges

Full-service department stores 

Traditional Doctor office



Personal computers

Mini mills

Cellular phones

Community colleges 

Discount stores

Mini medical clinics



Here in Minnesota, the most well-known example of disruptive innovation comes from the story of our largest retailer. Dayton’s Department Store was an “institution” in the Twin Cities; everyone shopped at Dayton’s in the 1900s.  As early as 1960 the Dayton brothers insightfully concluded that the business model of the large, sophisticated, department store was not capable of serving all consumers at its higher price point. So in 1962, the Dayton Company opened its first four Target Stores to serve the discount customer.

Target allowed the company to operate a store with lower gross margins, smaller target markets, and simpler products and services that might not appear as “profitable” as the original department store. This opened the door to a whole new population of consumers. The rest is history.

Today there is no Dayton-Hudson Corporation. It’s called Target Corporation.

In public education, some have called chartering a “disruptive innovation.” That may be true. It is opening the door to a whole new population of consumers who desire choice.

Could personalized learning and teacher autonomy, two innovations of the 21st century, be considered disruptive innovations? Could the schools of the future—both district and charter—be the norm in years to come? That depends on you—the educators of today.