Disruptive innovation is not a mystery. Where it will occur is actually predictable, using the principles of TRIZ, according to Jack Hipple.

There has been much discussion and public talk around the pioneering work of Clayton Chistensen regarding “disruption” and how important a concept this is in planning and thinking. Disruption is not as magic as it is portrayed by many. It is not a mystery. Where it will occur is predictable through the study of the inventive patent literature over the past decades. The patent literature has been well studied, providing the framework for being able to accurately forecast and plan for disruptions years ahead of time The TRIZ lines of evolution predict quite accurately these product and process disruption lines and events  as evidenced by the matching there trends against known history of product an technology development.

Here are a few examples:

Systems become more ideal by performing additional functions (cell phones) or by trimming and eliminating functions (cell phones that only receive calls, floor washing systems without buckets)

Field progression (mechanical, thermal, chemical, electronic, electromagnetic). Examples include these: image capturing systems evolving from cave drawings (mechanical) to conventional photography (chemical) to digital photography (electronic).  Cooking, toothbrushes and oral care, indicating systems (pointing devices), cleaning systems (mechanical sweeping, detergent systems, static dust mopping), and cooking moving to microwaves and show similar progressions.

Resources are more completely identified and used, making a system more ideal. Consider the simple flash drive we now see where the cover is designed into the main frame, not requiring a cap (which can be easily lost).

System complexity and simplicity oscillate (look at computer software complexity vs. web services, where you just “rent” the web-based services and software you need, when you need it). Home appliances have multiple functionality which has reached the point of an uncommon user not knowing how to make dinner. It is not unusual to see three different controllers for an entertainment system. Finding all of them at one time is a challenge, let alone remembering their different functions and which parts of the system they can be used on. This simple system of pushing one button has become incredibly complex and TRIZ teaches us that this system will condense down into one functional controller over time, not further increase in its complexity.

Patterns of invention are shared and multiply in use (breath strips are now being used to deliver medicine and other functionality).

The list goes on and on. If you want some additional stimulation on this topic, take the Skymall™ gift catalog out of the airplane seat the next time you fly and see how many examples of TRIZ evolutionary principles you can identify, especially those products which illustrate the field progression mechanical, thermal, chemical, electronic, electromagnetic.

So what should you specifically do?

First, take a look at every product and system you use or make and ask yourself these simple questions:

  • How could I make it more ideal (and this is not a 20% improvement!)?
  • How could I eliminate a part of the system and still deliver the functionality that is needed?
  • How could its functionality be achieved without it existing? (In other words, how could you be put out of business?) This may not be a better product , but through a new business model (above you) that does not require your product or service. People who videoconference do not to ride airplanes.
  • Are there resources that you haven’t considered to help achieve this? Make a list and if there are blanks, budget some money and serious people resources to look at these possibilities. When times are tough, we always seem to find unrecognized resources, including people, spare materials, collaborative customers and vendors, etc. Why wait for a crisis to consider these options? If the resources look to be truly sparse, then it’s time to do some radical thinking about your product or service could be delivered or made without them. You would be surprised at the type of breakthrough thinking this generates.

Second, ask yourself honestly: How complex is my system?  Don’t wait for a competitor to figure this out and displace or disrupt you! If it looks like a Rube Goldberg device, it probably is. Have you added functionality and complexity? How can you do the first without the second? Again, think about the oral care area: Crest’s Spin tooth brush vs. Sonicare, for no more than 25% of the cost! The travel toothbrush that has no toothpaste tube – the paste is in the handle, eliminating an object and making use of filled plastic space inside the handle. More ideal and less resources! Arbitrarily get rid of some component in your system and ask how its function can be performed with what’s left.

Third, make a list of each of your products and plot where they are along the field evolution lines of mechanical, thermal, chemical, electronic and electromagnetic progressions. How would you or your customer perform the function of your current product with the next field? Think about Kodak and the struggles to move away from wet chemical photography. Along with that input, budget some money to understand how that next field might be used – even if it’s not in your core competence. Maybe this will stimulate some acquisition thoughts. Think about missed steps and fields that might offer opportunities (hand crack rechargeable cell phones). Make these lists and use them to plan your next generation research, collaboration, joint venture or acquisition.


The evolution of products and the disruption in their evolution and replacement is well understood with TRIZ principles. This tool kit is just beginning to make its journey from traditional engineering problem solving to strategic planning, breakthrough product development, and acquisition/IP strategy.

The thorough analysis of the global patent literature (which after all is the documentation of breakthrough invention) gives not only many examples of breakthroughs, but the trends within this literature tell us what the progression of future inventions will be.

Jack Hipple is a principal in Innovation-TRIZ, Inc., a consulting company specializing in unique approaches to TRIZ training, the application of TRIZ to non-technical and organizational problems, and the integration of TRIZ with other innovation and creativity tools.