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Agile Marketing Series: Downward Mobility and Disruptive Technology

The idea of “downward mobility” doesn’t excite people in business like it should.

Maybe it’s the marketer’s obsession with an upward-sloping graph. Maybe it’s the engineer’s obsession with more features. Or maybe it’s the generally negative associations with the word “downward” that are to blame.

For Innovation, “Downwardly Mobile” Activities Are Where Tomorrow’s Leaders Come From

When engineers and marketers—anyone, really— get stuck, they tend to think they need more, better, faster.

And more, better, faster may be the best way to sustain a lead in a market, but you can’t sustain a market if you don’t have it under your thumb.

When you’re not the market leader, you have to be more agile in your approach. In other words, to disrupt a market leader requires the agile marketer to be downwardly mobile. It may seems counterintuitive—going down to go up—but it’s not.

The Innovator’s Dilemma

About 15 years ago, Clayton M. Christensen of Harvard Business School published his famous book The Innovator’s Dilemma, in which he put “good” business management practices to bed in terms of what the innovator must concentrate on:

  • Listens to customers and tries to serve their needs

  • Cuts unnecessary costs with better efficiency

  • Watches the market for what competitors are doing

  • Invests more money in research and development

Those are all things good management would do. It’s what many schools teach. It’s an easy sell in conference rooms. But the big surprise is: disruptive technologies don’t originate from those practices.

In fact, Christiansen says the old-school “manage better, work harder, minimize mistakes” approach does not create disruptive technology at all.

Are You Good With That?

The creators of disruptive technologies do more with less. They test small ideas before trying them on a bigger scale. They adapt and change quickly. They don’t need more money. In fact, they often need less, because more money attracts more bystanders, more profit measures, and implementation of those “good” management practices.

Disruptive technologies have to be agile, as they are, in Christiansen’s words, necessarily “downwardly mobile.”

Downward and Onward

Christiansen gives examples from disk drives to retail, hydraulic excavators to Intel’s 8088 processor: Disruptive behavior happens in every market, not just high technology. And it happens in software, too, not just hardware.

By being “downwardly mobile,” a disruptive technology is what Christiansen calls a downmarket entry: one that addresses different customer values—not the values currently attracting all the attention and business competition.

For example, in a market that demands faster and faster, a downmarket entry will be slower, but perhaps more durable. Durability will test itself in many different ways, find a niche, and then—if necessary—become faster as a function.

That’s how the downmarket entry eventually undercuts the market leader: he goes low, and flips the script.

The Barriers to Downward Innovation

Downward mobility doesn’t immediately glitter. Disruptive technologies are typically simpler, cheaper, more reliable, and more convenient. But they may not be sexy, which is good. The perceived weakness of disruptive technology is often a strength.

Christiansen lists other barriers to downward mobility, too:

  • the promise of upmarket profit margins through more volume

  • the tendency of existing customers to want to move upmarket

  • the inability of upmarket firms to cut costs

And all that upmarket movement is okay for sustaining technologies that are at the top now. But disruptive technology is what will be at the top tomorrow.

“You can always tell who the true pioneers were…”

The ones with the arrows in their backs.

Those who set out to innovate and become disruptive technologies cannot be afraid to fail. With agile marketing, they also need not fail the same way twice.

The process of agile is a discipline: scrums, sprints, burn downs, constant communication, freedom to explore, stability from structure, the union of complementary opposites—all of these things contribute to a marketing that better fits the world of disruptive-technology innovation.

Going downmarket—or being downwardly mobile—requires quick adaptation, testing, and the responsiveness to find marketing opportunities in unknown lands.

Innovation isn’t for everyone, but consider this: of all the books biographers listed on Steve Jobs’ reading list, there was only one business book, one that “deeply influenced” Jobs. It was The Innovator’s Dilemma.

No surprise it’s back in reprint, 15 years after it was first published. In the world of throw-away, airport-impulse business books, that’s huge.

Euclid, The First Agile Marketer?

In his book, Christiansen tells the story of Euclid, the Greek mathematician who was brought to court to teach his fancy new mathematics to King Ptolemy. The king listened to Euclid but couldn’t understand. He had Euclid explain more, but still Ptolemy failed to grasp it.

Eventually, the king complained. There must be an easier way to learn this stuff!

Euclid famously replied, “There is no royal road to geometry.” Geometry, he seemed to suggest, required a kind of discipline.

There’s No Royal Road to Innovation and Disruptive Technology, Either.

It often moves down market. The odds aren’t good. The way is hazy. The missteps are many. The competition, fierce. The differentiation, imperative. The satisfaction, sublime.

The marketing that goes with the kind of innovation we’re working on today must be agile. It must be small, testable ideas—not the big idea, big reveal, big inertia of traditional marketing. Because traditional marketing…well, that’s really the king’s kind of marketing, don’t you think? Sustaining.

Agile is for the disruptors.

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