The Innovator’s Dilemma Book Summary - The Innovator’s Dilemma Book explained in key points
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The Innovator’s Dilemma summary

Clayton Christensen

When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail

4.4 (379 ratings)
14 mins
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    The Innovator’s Dilemma
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    Who needs cheap radios?

    We’re in the United States and it’s the early 1950s. The war is over. People feel hopeful. The economy is booming. More households have more disposable income than ever before, and they’re spending it.

    That’s good news for all kinds of industries, from carmakers to the manufacturers of refrigerators. It’s also great for consumer electronics companies like RCA and Zenith. One of their top sellers is the vacuum tube music console – a handsomely veneered cabinet with an integrated radio that sits at the center of middle-class living rooms across the nation. 

    These consoles are well-made, sturdy objects. More to the point, they’re highly engineered and sound great. All that makes them expensive, but that’s not a problem. This is an age of affluence, and people can afford to pay top dollar for what matters to them – quality. And so that’s what companies focus on. They tinker and improve and continue making big, expensive consoles that sound great. 

    And that’s when a small Japanese firm called Sony enters the picture. Founded in 1946 with around $6,000 start-up capital, it still has fewer than twenty employees. But Sony’s chairman, Akio Morita, has an idea. 

    He takes up residence in a cheap hotel in New York City and starts negotiating a license to patented transistor technology owned by the American telecommunications company AT&T. Morita gets his license, but AT&T executives are baffled by his plan to use the technology to build small radios. Why would anyone care about small radios, they ask. His answer is cryptic: “Let’s see.”

    Sony’s portable transistor radio appears on the market in ’55. It’s a terrible radio. The static is so loud you can hardly hear the music, and the fidelity is much lower than those vacuum tube consoles. If you’re an affluent household that values sound quality, there’s no chance you’re buying a Sony radio! But what if you don’t have a lot of disposable cash? What if, in other words, you’re a typical American teenager? Well, the alternative to crappy transistor radios for ’50s teenagers is no radio, and so they start buying a lot of Sony radios!

    You can probably guess where this story is going. Sony’s crappy radios give the company a crowbar to prize open the American market. And, slowly but surely, transistor technology improves. By the time it’s so good that it becomes interesting to more affluent market segments – those teenagers’ parents, say – it’s already too late for companies like RCA and Zenith to catch up to Sony. 

    That is how Sony came to dominate the radio market in the United States.

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    What is The Innovator’s Dilemma about?

    The Innovator’s Dilemma explains why so many well-established companies fail dismally when faced with the emerging markets they create. This Blink focuses on one of the book’s central themes: disruptive innovation.

    Who should read The Innovator’s Dilemma?

    • Anyone interested in why big companies are so vulnerable to disruptive technologies
    • Business executives
    • Anyone who wants to take advantage of technological innovations

    About the Author

    Clayton M. Christensen (1952–2020) was a professor at Harvard Business School and one of the foremost management researchers in the world. He wrote numerous books and more than a hundred articles. The Economist named his book The Innovator’s Dilemma as one of the six most important business books ever.

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