Disruption: A Word in Search of Meaning

Part One

We are taught in communication and linguistics that words do not inherently have meaning. The only meaning comes from the people who agree to use a particular word as code for a concept or referent. Since the meaning assigned by each person is dependent on their experience, and no two people have exactly the same experience, they never have exactly the same meaning for any word. Understanding and interaction is about getting the overlap as close as possible. That is why reflective listening is so powerful.

Some words are easier than others. The word “car” is fairly simple, unless of course you drive a Tesla and I drive a Ford. In that case, we probably have different responses to the symbol “car”. The word “love” gets a lot more complicated.

In business and organizations today, there is no word used more often and in search of meaning more than the word “disruption.” Sometimes it seems like every person has their own unique meaning for this potentially powerful symbol, and because of that, executives and consultants and investors speak past each other on a regular basis. While they may think others are assigning the same meaning, often the distance is so great that there is virtually no overlap.

This five-part series is about the search for meaning for the word “disruption.” In this first installment, we will briefly look at the meaning often assigned before disruption was associated with the word “innovation.” The second part will explore some of the more common uses of the word in organizations today. Then we will look specifically at the unique way Clay Christensen uses “disruption.” The fourth installment will explore the advantages and limitations of different meanings. And we will close the series with thoughts regarding how we should move forward.

Let’s be honest, before “disruption” became a star in the business world, it had a pretty bad reputation. All sorts of negative emotions were aroused on hearing “disruption.” Other symbols commonly associated with the word include “disturbance,” “interruption,” “delay,” “disorder” and “chaos.” Not exactly feel good words! I must confess that the visual that often pops in my mind when I hear “disruption” is the Mayhem advertising campaign that AllState has been running for some time. Were you thinking the same thing?

If we had a lot of overlap in the early meaning assigned to disruption, how did we get so far apart in our use of the term in business today? Tune in for the second installment.

 

Part Two

When we started using the word “disruption” with “innovation,” we went from a lot of overlap in meaning each of us assign, to little or no overlap. In this Part Two of the five-part series, we will explore some of the more common meanings assigned to the word “disruption” in business.

Disruption as Big Improvements – Perhaps the most common meaning assigned to disruption is big improvements or large-scale innovation. We hear people talking about small changes or incremental improvements in contrast to big changes or disruptive innovation.

Disruption as Major Leaps Forward – Similar to the big improvement meaning is the major leap forward meaning. This is not dependent on a comparison with small improvements, but anything that seems to skip steps in a normal progression is often labeled a disruptive innovation.

Disruption as Technological Breakthroughs – Often the meaning assigned to disruption is closely linked with technology, especially digital technology. The power of technology to drive progress leads some to label almost any change that is based on digital technology as disruptive innovation.

Disruption as Transformative Changes – Often the meaning assigned to disruption is tied to reinvention and transformation. This meaning relates more to the concept of creating something new than to the degree of change or the driver of the change. One commonly used framework for assessing types of changes uses core, adjacent and transformational change.

When you hear or see the words “disruptive innovation,” what meaning comes to mind for you? Is there a right meaning? Are some better than others? Before analyzing the pros and cons of different meanings, in the next installment to this series, we will add the meaning promoted by one of today’s leading management thinkers, Harvard’s Clay Christensen.

Remember our objective is not necessarily to arrive at one definition of “disruptive innovation,” but as executives, entrepreneurs and investors, to stop talking past each other because we have such different meanings for these very important words.

 

Part Three

In this Part Three of the five-part series on the meaning of the word disruption in business, we are exploring the work of Clay Christensen. In many respects, Christensen reminds me of W. Edwards Deming. Having had the opportunity to attend sessions taught by Deming when he was in his 90’s, and now observing the contributions of Christensen, it is like I have seen this movie before.

While Deming is now deceased, I see both men as brilliant, tall and imposing figures. While focused in different areas, each developed theories of management that on the surface are counterintuitive. One obvious difference between these two men, however, is that Deming labeled his work as “profound knowledge”, while Christensen seems to apologize just about every time he speaks.

I find it particularly interesting how people react to these two management gurus. Almost every executive knew the name Deming and knew that his work was important. Business schools, however, did not teach his theories and not everyone dug deeply enough to recognize the potential impact of his work on their organizations. Today, most have heard the name Christensen and have a surface understanding of his work, but few understand how his unique approach to “disruption” can drive growth in their organizations. It is the same movie!

So, what meaning does Christensen assign to “disruptive innovation?” First, it has little to do with the meanings we discussed in the previous section. It is not really about big change versus little change. It is not dependent on technological breakthroughs, although technology plays a role. And, it could be core, adjacent or transformative. Wait, are we still talking about “disruptive innovation?”

Christensen’s approach to “disruption” is about driving growth in organizations and in the economy. And growth means adding jobs and revenue, not simply taking market share from others.

At its core, Christensen’s meaning for “disruption” is grounded in simplicity. It is about making products and services simple, easy to use, and less expensive. When products are simpler and less expensive, the market grows. More people have the skill to use and the money to buy the products. Think smart phones, online education and Amazon Prime.

A recently published interview with Christensen by Innovation Leader, which by the way included a question from Disruption Lab member Eric Thrailkill, Christensen descirbes disruption this way, “Every market has a set of concentric circles around it that represent larger populations of people who have progressively less money and less skill. A disruptive innovation is not an innovation that makes good products better, but rather it makes [something] so much more affordable and accessible that much larger populations of people have access to it.”

This isn’t the way most executives have been taught to think. Most get up every morning thinking about how to make their products better by adding more features so they can charge higher prices and make higher margins. For many, before they realize what is happening, someone enters the market with a simpler, easier to use and less expensive offering, and their companies are disrupted.

So, do we finally have the “right” meaning for disruptive innovation? In the next installment we will look at examples and explore the advantages and disadvantages of the different approaches we have discussed.

 

Part Four

In the first three parts of this series, we have searched for the meaning of the word “disruption” and particularly as used in business related to innovation. We have identified meaning related to the degree of change—big change; meaning tied to the driver of innovation—digital technology; meaning linked to the form of change—reinvention or transformation; and counterintuitive meaning related to characteristics of products—simple and inexpensive. In this Part Four of the five-part series, we will begin to explore the advantages of limitations of the different meanings.

Degree of Change – It is undeniable that big changes can disrupt the current order of things in a major way. Autonomous vehicles are a big change that is coming and will “disrupt” everything from car ownership, to truck drivers, to parking lots. Fewer vehicles will be needed and jobs will be lost but there will be fewer accidents. Generally, it takes years and vast resources for this type of disruption to take hold, and there are winners and losers.

Driver of Innovation – Technology-driven disruption seems to be the gold standard today. Most technology only produces small improvements in the form of speed and efficiency, but over time there can be exponential disruption. 3D printing is finally beginning to disrupt. Centralized manufacturing and logistics will never be the same. A downside is that people who are not engineers or computer scientists often sit on the sidelines of this type of disruption.

Form of Change – Reinvention and transformation have tended to be strategically driven disruptions. They are the result of intentional decisions by organizations to create new economic engines, either adding to or replacing the current engine. In the past a company would strategically decide to move into a specific new market, but today companies like Amazon constantly experiment and new businesses like AWS emerge. 

Characteristics of Products – Products that are simpler and less expensive disrupt industries—wait, this just doesn’t make sense! Can we start over with this one? Maybe examples will help. Online education is simpler, easier to access and less expensive than traditional universities. And the University of Phoenix has become the largest university in the country. Taking Uber or Lyft is simpler and less expensive than owning a car. Tapping your smart phone to talk with a doctor or healthcare provider is simpler and less expensive than making an appointment at a health clinic. These are disruptive even though at first they seem counterintuitive, and an advantage is that every company, no matter its size or technological sophistication, can play this disruption game.

Part Five

As we close out this series on the search for the meaning of the word “disruption,” we will explore the strategic drivers of disruptive innovation in organizations. I would suggest quite simply that the focus on disruptive innovation in most organizations today is driven by survival and the desire to grow.

So, let’s go through of list of meanings that we are working with, starting with big innovation or big change. If you have a big pile of money and time and feel lucky, this is an option. There are successful moonshots, but they are called “moonshots” because, well, we haven’t been to the moon in a long time.

Technology driven disruption is critical. It enables companies to serve customers faster and more efficiently, therefore saving money. It may even put a company in a position to take market share from competitors. It is important for survival and sometimes produces growth.

Reinvention is at the core of survival. Today, continual reinvention is the standard and the type of reinvention will determine how much growth will be produced.

Developing products and services that are simple and inexpensive, assuming they accomplish a job customers are searching to hire a product or service to do, is probably the most reliable route to survival and growth. Simpler and less expensive products enable companies to move out to increasing larger circles of customers, until, as in the case of the smart phone, virtually every person on the planet is a potential customer. That is real growth. That is survival. And that is disruption.

Any company can disrupt employing this meaning. And almost every company will be disrupted by others employing this meaning if they are not proactive and strategic.

None of the meanings outlined in this series is wrong. Some, however, are more helpful if the goal is survival and growth.

And please, when talking with others about disruptive innovation, ask a simple question, “When you say ‘disruptive innovation,’ what do you mean?” If you really want to live on the edge, you can say, “So what I hear you saying is . . .” No, don’t do that—you might get disrupted!

 

Summary

This five-part series is about the search for meaning for the word “disruption.” In this first installment, we briefly looked at the meaning often assigned before disruption was associated with the word “innovation.”

In Part Two, we explored some of the more common meanings assigned to the word “disruption” in business.

In Part Three of this series, we examined the counterintuitive meaning Clay Christensen assigns to disruptive innovation. A recently published interview with Christensen by Innovation Leader, included a question from our own Disruption Lab member, Eric Thrailkill. Christensen descirbes disruption this way, “Every market has a set of concentric circles around it that represent larger populations of people who have progressively less money and less skill. A disruptive innovation is not an innovation that makes good products better, but rather it makes [something] so much more affordable and accessible that much larger populations of people have access to it.”

In Part Four, we discussed the advantages of limitations of the different meanings we assign to disruptive innovation.

We closed out this five-part series on the search for the meaning for the word “disruption” by exploring the strategic drivers of disruptive innovation in organizations.

 

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