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What disruption really means
Disruption is one of the most overused words in the business world. But what does it really mean? Should you care about disrupting your business – or even your life? And does all success require disruption?
Here’s all you ever wanted to know about disruption, but were too afraid to ask.
Let’s start with a dictionary definition for regular use:
noun: disruption; plural noun: disruptions
1. disturbance or problems that interrupt an event, activity, or process.
But for business use, the term “disruption” really took off with Clayton Christensen’s 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. In it, Christensen introduced the idea of “disruptive innovation.” He used this phrase as a way to think about successful companies not just meeting customers’ current needs, but anticipating their unstated or future needs. His theory worked to explain how small companies with minimal resources were able to enter a market and displace the established system.
However, like most buzzwords, the term quickly took on a life of its own. Suddenly everyone was “disruptive” and/or “innovative.” Christensen was so concerned with the transformation the term had taken on that he published a 2015 update on what the term really should encompass.
Christensen says that a disruptive business is likely to start by either satisfying the less-demanding customers or creating a market where none existed before. So “when mainstream customers start adopting the entrants’ offerings in volume,” he explains, “disruption has occurred.”
One problem with identifying disruptors is that often they need lots of time to make real impact. The process is long; we’re not talking weeks or months, even. Another issue? Often a disruptor’s business model looks completely different than what’s already there, so it can be hard to see a disruptor in its early stages.
However, because everyone wants to seem on the bleeding edge of progress, everything that seems remotely innovative gets called “disruptive.” But here’s the secret: not every successful business or product needs to disrupt.
What disruption is not, or, the Uber problem (it’s a big one)
Chances are you’ve read or heard the words disruption and Uber used in the same sentence. Yet according to Christensen’s theory, Uber doesn’t actually fit the true definition of innovative disruption. Why? Because the service is seen as better than taxis and the market already existed. So it’s an outlier in disruption theory.
Think of it this way: if an idea existed before, it’s likely the business isn’t disruptive. But something like radio or television — those change the entire game.
Instead of Uber, think of Netflix. When Netflix started, Blockbuster thought it seemed insignificant. Who would want to wait for DVDs to arrive? Blockbuster didn’t anticipate where the future of watching movies was going; when Netflix came to them to sell their business and Blockbuster declined. If Netflix had started out targeting Blockbuster’s core market, it’s likely the video rental giant would have launched “a vigorous and perhaps successful counterattack,” explains Christensen. But because of the time that disruption requires, Blockbuster didn’t realize it was under threat until Netflix tapped into streaming — then it was too late. Today, Netflix is worth billions and Blockbuster is bankrupt.
Why is disruption so popular?
So what does it matter that Christensen and others think people are using the word disruption incorrectly? For one, the trendy catchphrase has deep impact. As Tony Robbins has pointed out, the words we attach to our experience become our experience. Words have a biochemical effect on the body. The minute you use a word like “devastated” you’re going to produce a very different biochemical effect than if you say, “I’m a bit disappointed.” The same goes for words like “innovative” or “disruptive” — overused, they begin to empty out of meaning and limit how we can think of what makes a successful business. This leads to a homogenization of how we visualize success and, ironically, creates limiting beliefs about what kind of businesses will change the nature of the game.
Yet the popularity of disruption can’t be denied. “Disruptive innovation is a high stakes game, with high risk and potentially high rewards. It’s also very difficult to spot the winning disruptive opportunities, especially when disruptive ideas require other players in the ecosystem to acknowledge and embrace the change,” explains Alison Coleman in Forbes. Who doesn’t want to change the landscape of the marketplace?
Take virtual reality. New innovations have lead to the creation of a new market that is poised to change how we experience everything from sports to education. Skeptical? Listen to Brad Allen, chairman of NextVR, describe his vision of what’s coming and judge for yourself.
Success vs Disruption
Another way to think about success via innovation comes from Tony Robbins’ Business Mastery seminar. As Tony says,
Innovation, what is innovation? It’s not tech. Innovation is any way you find a way to do more for a client than anybody else does. There is only one way to get wealthy. […]
In fact, if there’s one goal I have for you, it’s fall in love with your client and not with your product or service, because your product or service is going to have to change. Time is going to change your product. I don’t care how long it’s been around. What used to take glacial periods of time—centuries, the iron age, the ice age, thousand-year periods of time—started happening in centuries, then started happening in decades and now what’s happening? We’re doubling the amount of information that man has on the planet, digitized even, every 36 months. Doubling everything in the history of mankind. The changes are geometric and we’re at the beginning of the beginning of the beginning of the pace of change. As corny as it sounds, when we talk about the pace of change, it is right at the base where the geometric changes really start to occur. They’re not here yet. And unless you’re constantly innovating, but innovating in a way that customer cares about, you’re going to be in the dust.
So what’s the key to disruptive innovation? The phrase “disrupt or be disrupted” is a misnomer. In many ways, debating whether or not Tesla Motors or Apple fits the disruptive model or not misses the point. What matters more is falling in love with your customer, not your product. When you clearly identify the business you’re really in, you’ll be poised to anticipate your customers’ needs and experience incredible growth. Think of it as disrupting your business as usual.
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