Think about the companies like Uber and Airbnb that have burst through into public consciousness in the past decade. While many of them depend on the internet, their success is not linked to any particular technological innovation of their own design. Instead, their secret lies in their business model.

Thales Teixeira of the Harvard Business School argues that the principle that underlies a lot of these models is called decoupling. In his book "Unlocking the Customer Value Chain," he explains how this concept applies across a wide range of industries.

Buying a product involves at least four stages. Customers evaluate the items available, choose one or two, then buy them and finally consume them. These steps are all part of what Teixeira calls the "customer value chain." In the traditional model, the first three stages took place inside a single retail store.

Now, though, the model has been disrupted. Take "showrooming." That's when shoppers enter an electronics store like Best Buy and browse. But instead of purchasing items in the store, they buy them online. Amazon has created an app allowing customers to scan a product's bar code, or take its picture, and discover its online price. The selection of products has thus been decoupled from their purchase.

Other examples of the decoupling process cited by Teixeira include TiVo, where watching TV can be done without ads, and Birchbox, where customers are sent samples of beauty products, eliminating the need to visit a store to try them. This is not, as the author points out, a particularly new idea, and Best Buy and other retailers such as Target are seeing dividends after changing their own business models in response.

The beauty of the decoupling approach, Teixeira said, is that the only limit to innovation is imagination, rather than technical brilliance. Take for example Trov, a company that allows customers to buy insurance for specific items for specific periods of time. If you want to insure your latest smartphone for a two-week holiday, you can do so; the insurance is decoupled from an annual policy.

Teixeira argued that decoupling is a customer-driven phenomenon — bottom-up rather than top-down. Successful businesses will spot how consumer tastes are shifting and may find ideas in other industries. For example, subscription services are common in entertainment, like cable or Netflix. Now companies are using that idea for wine, socks and, with Target, basic household items, decoupling the items from a trip to the store.