Ready to take the initiative & join our newsletter?

What disruption really means

It’s the trendiest term in business today – are you using it wrong?

Are you a disruptor? Are you engaging in business disruption? When talking about movers and shakers in different industries, the word “disruption” often comes up. Disruption has become one of the most overused words in the business world – so overused that it’s difficult to pinpoint a consistent disruption definition. The concept of disruptive innovation might have one meaning in your industry and an entirely different meaning in another. How can you give disruption meaning for your brand without a clear understanding of what it is? Should you even care about disruptive innovation? If your business isn’t disrupting the status quo, is that a problem? And does all success require disruption? 

Read on to create a disruption definition that resonates with your brand. You can give disruption meaning and relevance using Tony Robbins’ and business mogul Jay Abraham’s most coveted advice. You’ll also learn all you ever wanted to know about disruption but didn’t know to ask.

Creating a disruption definition that resonates

Let’s start with a dictionary disruption definition to give us a baseline:



noun: disruption; plural noun: disruptions

1. A disturbance or problem that interrupts an event, activity or process.

This dictionary disruption definition is synonymous to “interruption,” which has a largely negative connotation. 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. In Christensen’s writing, business disruption was a good thing. 

Business disruption was a powerful concept when Christensen first published it, but like most buzzwords, the term quickly took on a life of its own. Suddenly everyone in the workforce was “disruptive” and/or “innovative.” Christensen was so concerned with the transformation the term had taken on that he published a 2015 update in the Harvard Business Review on what the term “business disruption” really should encompass.

image credit:

image credit:

Christensen says that a disruptive business is likely to start by either attracting the less-demanding customers or creating a market where none existed before. “When mainstream customers start adopting the entrants’ offerings in volume,” he explains, “disruption has occurred.”

Disruptive innovation: Frequently asked questions

An authentic disruption definition must work in any industry, for any business model and for any brand. Since the term has different meanings in the business world, giving disruption meaning means giving shape to an often-nebulous concept. Let’s consider a few frequently asked questions about disruption and disruptive innovation. 

1. What does disruption mean in business?

Let’s consider what business disruption is – and what it isn’t. 

What business disruption is not. 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 disruption definition. Why? Because the service provides a direct challenge to taxis – a preexisting market.

Did Uber shift the transportation industry? Yes. But it didn’t truly disrupt it.

Think of it this way: If an idea existed before, it’s likely the business isn’t disruptive. But innovations like radio or television – those changed the entire entertainment industry and therefore embody disruptive innovation.

What business disruption is. To better understand Christensen’s disruption definition, think of Netflix instead of Uber. When Netflix started, Blockbuster thought the service seemed insignificant. Why would anyone wait for DVDs to arrive in the mail when they could pick them up at the store? Blockbuster didn’t anticipate where the future of watching movies was going, that streaming would become the next phase of home entertainment, which ultimately led to its downfall. Instead of considering the next generation and their preferences, Blockbuster continued to rely on their DVD-renting customers.

When Netflix came to the rental giant to sell their business, Blockbuster declined. If Netflix had started out targeting Blockbuster’s core market, it’s likely Blockbuster 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 threatened until Netflix tapped into streaming services, unlocking the brand’s immense profitability. By then it was too late. Today, Netflix is worth billions of dollars and Blockbuster is bankrupt.

2. What is an example of disruptive innovation?

One problem with identifying disruptors is that often they need lots of time to make a real impact in their respective fields. Sometimes it can take years for the true effects of disruption to present itself in the market. Additionally, a disruptor’s business model can look completely different than what’s already there, so it can be hard to identify disruptive innovation in its early stages. This is especially true of companies that anticipate social shifts that few others in the industry are aware of.

Most true disruptors aren’t setting out just to be disruptors. Like any other business owner, they’re trying to provide a product or service that adds real value for their customers. The best disruptors are those who are innovating constantly because they find meaning in their mission. Their business map is revealed as disruptive only over time as they make their mark, often permanently changing an entire industry. They never really focus on the question “What is a disruption definition?” because they don’t care. Their priority is making a difference.

But because disruptive innovation has become synonymous with progress – and everyone likes progress – many companies attempt to style themselves as “disruptive” right from the get-go. But here’s the secret: not every successful business or product needs to disrupt. 

3. What does “disruptive innovation strategy” mean?

With a disruptive innovation strategy, you create an actionable plan for getting from where you are now to where you want to be. It puts your desire for disruption into motion. Having a strategy allows you to anticipate disruptive forces coming into your industry so you can plan for – and benefit – from them. 

4. How do I put disruptive innovation into action?

Disruptive innovation requires keeping in touch with technological advances in your industry so you can stay one step ahead. You want to disrupt instead of being disrupted, so keep a pulse on your competition. And don’t be afraid to disrupt your own brand. Self-disruption – constantly adapting your product to remain relevant – can only help you. Forbes reports on Apple’s use of disruption as a long-term growth strategy. The company’s iPod revenue dropped by $345 million because of Apple’s own disruptive innovation: the iPhone,  which generated $18 billion in revenue.

Why is disruption so popular?

image credit: imgflip

image credit: imgflip

So what does it matter that Christensen and others think people are using the word disruption incorrectly? For one, a trendy catchphrase makes a 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 when we try to give disruption meaning with phrases like “disruptive innovation.” When overused, they lose their 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 no one can deny the popularity of business disruption and what the term implies. “Disruptive innovation is a high stakes game, with high risk and potentially high rewards,” explains Alison Coleman in Forbes. “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.”

Who wouldn’t want to change the landscape of the marketplace?

Most entrepreneurs are naturally innovative, and most innovators have dreams of changing the world. This is one of the reasons why business disruption is so appealing.

Take virtual reality. New innovations have led to the creation of a new market 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. With innovations like NextVR, consumers can touch, feel and experience events like never before – all from the comfort of their own homes.

What is a meaningful disruption definition for the average business owner? Should business owners focus on disruption, or should they take an integrated approach to their business? Answering these questions helps you craft a disruption meaning that’s relevant to your brand. It could be the case that, to make your business talkably different than the competition, you don’t necessarily have to focus on disruption. 

Disruption and small business

Let’s focus on small business. Don’t get tricked into thinking that because your business isn’t on the scale of Netflix, there are no lessons to be learned. Businesses of any size can engage in business disruption. But to do so, you must work from within your own company.

Answer this question: Do you want your business to grow? Ninety-nine business owners out of 100 will answer yes. But before growing your business, you must optimize your company from within.

This is where we can turn to business guru Jay Abraham. He argues that many business owners want growth, but their focus is trained outside of their business. This is a mistake. To successfully prepare your business for real growth, you’ve got to disrupt your business from within by analyzing your existing structure.

Preparing for disruptive innovation

Instead of engaging in disruptive innovation blindly, Jay Abraham advocates for careful examination of your business from the inside out. This is a process known as mindful scaling. Start with your sales force. Before you invest in a new software system to automate your team’s numbers, look first at their processes. How can you make their messaging more effective? How can you open client relationships in new areas? Don’t stop at analyzing your sales team. Take a look at your marketing strategy as well. If your numbers are flat, it’s time to experiment with new avenues of messaging. While you’re at it, take a look at how you serve your existing customers. Are you meeting their needs? Are there ways you can serve them faster and make their process easier and more streamlined?

If you’re ready to take the next step and become a disruptor, you’re ready to explore Jay Abraham’s Market Force Multiplier.

Success vs. disruption

Another way to think about success via innovation comes from Tony’s Business Mastery event. 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.

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.

Unless you’re constantly innovating, [and] innovating in a way that customer cares about, you’re going to be in the dust.

Put another way, are you a multiplier or a diminisher? As Jay Abraham teaches us, a multiplier can take even an average business idea and elevate it beyond its initial potential. Conversely, a diminisher could take a bulletproof business that’s in the black and tank that business in a matter of months. The key is attitude. 

If you view yourself as an entrepreneur and back that up with action in your business, you will seek out innovation and improvement at every turn. You will not be satisfied with the status quo when you know that your business can do more. Conversely, a proprietor is happy to put in hours, make a modest profit and never disrupt the status quo. In short, a proprietor maintains the status quo. An entrepreneur is a natural born disruptor.

Giving disruption meaning for your brand

How can a brand deploy business disruption? Is there a secret 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 turning your customers into lifelong devotees, not trying to make this or that product disruptive. 

It’s about finding new and better ways to engage and retain your customers, such as with Artificial Intelligence (AI). Depending on how it’s used, AI might not qualify as business disruption because it’s been heavily utilized for decades. However, whether it’s disruptive or not, it can provide an easy and effective way to connect with your customers and can make your business more successful. When you think of it that way, who cares if it’s business disruption? It’s success, and that is what most business owners strive for. 

When you clearly identify the business you’re really in, you’ll be poised to experience incredible growth as you find ways to stand out in a crowded world. By anticipating the changing needs of your customers, innovation and disruption will occur naturally. When you take the focus off of business disruption and put it on solving problems for your customers, you will always head in the right direction.

If you’re ready to take the next step toward disruption, get to know your business identity. When you truly understand what drives your company, you’re prepared to take your company to the next level.

Header image © Andrey_Popov/shutterstock

Team Tony

Team Tony cultivates, curates and shares Tony Robbins’ stories and core principles, to help others achieve an extraordinary life.

related posts
Career & Business

From Now to Next

Read More
Career & Business

Making Remote Meetings Successful

Read More
Career & Business

How businesses are pivoting now

Read More

Get Tony Robbins' articles, podcasts and videos in your inbox, biweekly.