Zoe Aitken9 November 2021

Four barriers to overcome for disruptive innovation

Some of the world’s most innovative companies were founded during a recession. Think Airbnb, WhatsApp, and General Electric. And some of the best inventions such as Netflix video streaming (where would we be without that right now?) and the Apple iPod were launched off the back of an economic downturn. Plato was on the money when he said that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. And a crisis certainly brings about a lot of new necessities.

The pandemic has created an abundance of new customer opportunities. Customer’s worlds have changed so significantly, that what was important to them previously, may now not be. And new customer needs have also arisen, presenting exciting opportunities. The trick is to make sure that we are looking in the right places to spot them.

Former Harvard Business School Professor, Clayton Christensen, recognised that many of the most successful innovations overcome a consumption barrier. In doing so, they offer access to new customer groups and create new markets. He identified four common consumption barriers, that when overcome, present big innovation opportunities. These barriers include cost, access, time, and skills. Let’s briefly explore each one, and how recent innovations have exploited them to create new opportunities.


‘Cost’ is a common barrier that limits the market potential of certain products and services when they are too expensive. When the pandemic first hit, we were all faced with the cost of having to set up a home office. Danish furniture start-up, Stykka, tackled this barrier head-on by designing a cardboard desk. In just 24 hours, the team created a desk using a laser cutter, cardboard, and zip ties, providing a simple, fast, and affordable home office solution.

To overcome a cost barrier, reflect on which customers can’t afford your offers, and how you might be able to create something simpler and more affordable for them.


‘Access’ has been a big barrier throughout the pandemic, with many people unable to get to bricks and mortar stores. This has led to a huge rise in digital and virtual experiences. The Faroe Islands, which is a set of Islands just off the coast of Norway, is a great example of this. They came up with an innovative way for people to go on self-guided, virtual tours of the islands. Camera-wearing locals responded to sight-seeing commands from people at home, allowing them to control their own island tours. The guides were in kayaks, on horseback or hiking around mountain villages, providing virtual tourists with a unique travel experience from their lounge rooms.

To address this barrier, think about how you can make it easier for customers and non-customers to access your offers.


The pandemic has sapped our time as many of us juggle increased workloads, home-schooling and caregiving commitments. Carol bikes is helping give back time by offering a more efficient way to exercise. They recently launched an AI-powered exercise bike, that promises the benefits of a 45-minute run in 8 minutes and 40 seconds. It offers high-intensity sprint training which is perfectly matched to your fitness levels. Sign me up!

Therefore, reflect on where ‘time’ might be a barrier for your customers, and how you can overcome this by offering more time-efficient solutions.


‘Skills’, or more accurately ‘a lack of’, can often be a barrier for customers using certain offers. The pandemic prompted a surge in stress baking and saw online searches for “how to bake sourdough bread” soar (guilty!). Mr Holmes Bakehouse in the US saw this as an opportunity and decided to pivot their business to start supplying home baking kits. Their customers could order bread kits that included everything they needed to make a sourdough starter.

So, the question is: do customers lack the skills to access your offers, and if so, how might you be able to simplify things for them?

Spending time reflecting on these four common consumption barriers can help you spot new and more disruptive opportunities for your business.