Disruptors and Disruption

Once, a company being a disruptor was considered the ultimate honour tag; and a chance that there was a case study just waiting to erupt onto the unsuspecting HBR readership.  Now a company like Uber or even AirBnB as a disruptor doesn’t ALWAYS attract the adoring storylines.

We live in interesting times, where change is the only constant.

Whilst this is not an inaccurate phrase, it appears a little vacuous and perhaps even cliched.  Particularly without any context at all.

So it also is with use of disruption and disruptors.

The killer phrase of the thought leaders; the consulting brigades and the stage-roaming speakers has now become an overused and eye-rolling annoyance to the knowing throngs.

Once, a company being a disruptor was considered the ultimate honour tag; and a chance that there was a case study just waiting to erupt onto the unsuspecting HBR readership.  Now a company like Uber or even AirBnB as a disruptor doesn’t ALWAYS attract the adoring storylines.

What’s disrupted disruption and tarnished it for its once adulating masses?

Same as all useful models, concepts and theories: phrase overuse, lower than required understanding and grasp of what it ACTUALLY is and how it’s used, and some degree of challenge to the concept itself.

So let’s get a few things straight about me writing this piece: I’ve always been a fan of disruptive innovation.  Note what I said there.  Disruptive Innovation.  Not just disruption.  I’ve deliberately tagged it with innovation not just because that was the original premise of the founding “father” Professor Clayton Christensen.  He studied organisations who introduced disruptive innovation to their processes, their markets, and more and became successful.

So what does this phrase actually mean?  I covered it very deliberately in my book Transformational HR because I wanted to make sure people realised when I said transformational HR I didn’t mean some shallow and lame attempt at disruptive HR.

Christensen had 3 innovation schemas in mind when he wrote the book “The Innovator’s Dilemma”:

1. A sustaining innovation. Either an evolutionary (improvement-based) innovation that enhances an existing product or service in an existing market.

2. The other sustaining innovation is revolutionary – a new version of a product or service which is deemed a radically different alternative to any previous incarnations.

3. And then disruptive innovation.

A disruptive innovation is something that creates a new method, model or market.  Such a radical departure from anything seen in the market before that it disrupts and challenges convention, traditions and existing standards.

Something like iTunes disrupted the purchase, storage and consumption of recorded music.  No longer needing to physically acquire vinyl or CD, downloads became the way we adapted our music search, select and secure.

That created a new chart, methods of releasing music, terms and conditions (there was a famous news story with Bruce Willis wishing to bequeath his iTunes library to his daughters – something easier with physical format).

Then just as we got used to that, Spotify came and streamed music by subscription, disrupting Apple and iTunes.

That’s true disruption – something new, totally changing the dynamics of a product, service or model.

Which is why people porn scorn on disruption.  Because it’s not being used in the sense of that final definition.  People have over-labelled evolutionary and revolutionary sustaining innovations as disruption.

Disruption may have been used to justify bold, perhaps even dangerous attempts to change courses, create adapted products or services and justify pet projects and ideas without evidence and justification.

I’m guilty as charged on some of this overuse of the term disruption. For a while, knowing that it was a good way to get people’s attention, I used it when I thought it was entirely justified and yet now I accept it was perhaps a little bandwagon jumping.  I’ve even defended disruption to those who have really taken on disruption.

I saw disruption as something that broke predictable thinking patterns.  Gave hope to challenges to orthodoxies.  I still think it does do that, but because of doubts on the use and the belief in disruption as a tool/method in appropriate ways of course.

So let’s reclaim disruption and use it in the most appropriate and relevant manner, and here’s my tips for how.

1. Recognise when it is disruption: If this truly is a TOTALLY new venture, product or service you can justify the disruptive/disruption tag which means you will need to face up to challenges, uncertainty and the need to build your business case as you go.  A disruptive innovation will have no precedents.  Convincing others will need to be on faith, trust and emerging proof.

2. Admit when it’s a sustaining innovation: You may still have no precedent for the adapted version you’re proposing; but you will be able to show the best of what you will retain from the existing product/service which may also justify your revolutionary or evolutionary innovation.

3. Be prepared for disruptive implications: A sustaining innovation might not seem as far-reaching as a disruption, but it can still be a disruptor. If an adapted product or service opens up a new line of customers; brings more positive publicity or generates additional loyalty or revenue, then it’s disrupting sales projections, customer segments or marketing collateral.  This disruption is both a new development and a challenge as it might means others have to adapt plans, commit to new spend or materials etc.  This won’t always be met with joy and welcoming despite its positive origin.

There’s a place for disruption and for disruptors.  Used wisely, bravely and with energy.  Please don’t think the disruption of disruption means you shouldn’t be a disruptor.


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