How Do We Design Truly Disruptive Innovations?

Jan 23, 2007, 6:56 AM, Posted by

What will be the next disruptive innovations in health care?  This is a question I find fascinating to contemplate. Harvard professor Clayton Christensen broke new ground when he defined this concept, and in a recent (December, 2006) Harvard Business Review article, he refined it to apply to the social and health care sectors.

What intrigues me about disruptive innovations is not the impact they have on markets, profits or industries, but how they literally can transform the lives of ordinary people. A truly disruptive innovation makes it possible for ordinary people to have access to something they want, more easily, inexpensively and without having to rely on experts to the extent they did previously.

As a doctor, I witnessed first-hand how the home glucose monitor changed the lives of tens of thousands of diabetics. It wasn’t that long ago when patients had to get dressed and drive to a hospital, where a health care professional would draw their blood, process it and them give them the result hours later. Today, these same people can get a reading of their own blood glucose in seconds, without having to leave home or even change out of their pj’s.  If you’re a diabetic and are juggling family, school or job demands, that convenience factor can make a huge difference.  That said, if you don’t care about getting your blood glucose measured without muss or fuss, then the home glucose monitor won’t be a disruptive innovation. In other words, innovators have to understand what people really want – what will really make a difference to them as they manage their health in the context of their everyday lives – in order to create disruptive innovations.

So I ask myself (and you)—when it comes to health, or innovations related to health, what do people want?

Susan Promislo wrote about the potential for the next generation of video and computer games to teach kids how to learn and enjoy lifelong sports like golf and tennis, and increase their physical activity without leaving home.  Such games fit in to the flow of many children’s lives; they represent an activity kids like to do, and they and their peers typically regard games as “cool.”  Chances are it never registers that video games could be good for them (because if we’ve come to expect anything from decades of tobacco prevention research, it’s that kids get turned off, or consciously rebel, once they learn that something is “good for them”).

For kids who live in unsafe neighborhoods and don’t have access to tennis courts, ball fields or coaches, these games have the potential to become a disruptive innovation that puts them on the road to better health. But will they? As an optimist, and the head of the largest philanthropy dedicated to health and health care I want to believe that everyone wants ways to get and stay active, but somehow I don’t think that is enough to make these new games disruptive. As a physician, a parent and a person, I believe these games could be a healthy disruptive innovation if designers can get a really accurate read on what people, especially kids, want from video and computer games and incorporate those desired features when it comes to health.

So what do people want from innovations like games related to health? Thoughts?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.