Clearly Define Your Disruption Terms

By: Joe Calloway, Principal with The Disruption Lab

I recently read an article in a local business publication called “The Power 100: Disruptors.” They deemed these 16 people to be disruptors, described as “the power players who are changing the way we do business.”

Their list included:

  • A mobile-technology firm that is building a new headquarters and adding employees.
  • An investor who is attempting to raise his ownership share in a local bank, “giving him further influence locally.”
  • A pizza restaurant that is adding two new locations.
  • The leader of a movement to stop what many saw as an ill-advised mass transit proposal.
  • An entertainment executive who is influential and recently added a popular artist to his management company’s roster.

The list goes on in that same vein. That’s what they call disruption.

When many people, probably most people, talk about disruption, they aren’t talking about the Christensen version of disruption, defined in general terms as satisfying less-demanding customers or creating a market where none existed before. They are talking about doing something a bit differently, or growth, or simply being successful.

The reason definitions matter here is that a company supposedly pursuing disruption can get into the weeds of distraction or end up on a meaningless wild goose chase because they never clearly defined their terms for themselves. My experience in consulting with a range of companies is that when most people talk about “disruption,” what they really mean is “different.”

I cringe a little when I hear a leader suggesting “let’s be different” as the goal for an organization. If everyone wears a funny hat, you’re different. Imagine a baseball player asking, “How can I swing the bat in a way that’s different from any other baseball player?” Really? Who cares? What’s the point? For the baseball player, the right question, if looking to sustain success, might be “How can I get more hits?” If looking to truly disrupt, the question would more likely be “What new game should I invent that will attract fans who don’t care for baseball?”

If you believe that the future success of your organization is in disruptive innovation, be sure that the stakeholders in the process share a clear definition of the terms being used. You won’t get far if part of the organization believes that the goal is “different” and another part is pursuing the creation of new markets where none existed before.

Get everyone on the same disruption page!

Joe Calloway is a nationally acclaimed keynote speaker, consultant and author of Be the Best at What Matters Most and six other ground-breaking business books including Becoming A Category of One: How Extraordinary Companies Transcend Commodity And Defy Comparison, which received rave reviews from The New York TimesRetailing TodayPublishers Weekly and many others. He consults and advises leadership teams of global organizations with ideas and strategies on leadership, innovation and customer experience. You can connect with or ask Joe a question through The Disruption Lab community at


One thought on “Clearly Define Your Disruption Terms

  1. Well said. Companies have a language of their own. Some of it driven by the industry they’re in, but most of it driven by the culture, experiences, and artifacts that have built up over the years. It would be nice if every time you joined a new company, they would give you the secret decoder ring.

    I’ve been surprised more than once by a company using a term I was familiar with, but defining it very differently. Joe, you’re right. As long as the definintion is clear, shared, and effective, no need to make a change. As I’ve consulted with companies, I generally try to adopt their vocabulary and language, instead of trying to get them to adopt what I believe is the “generally accepted” terms and definitions. However, there are times when precise clarity is needed to accomplish a more successful perspective.

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