Let’s All Stop Saying ‘Disrupt’ Right This Instant

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No! Bad! Photo: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

Recently, I got an email from an acquaintance who is switching jobs; the mass email, which contained his new contact details, spoke of his eagerness to "work alongside such disruptive minds" at his new company.

My eyes rolled involuntarily. Of course his new co-workers were disruptive. What isn't these days? In the past few years, I've gotten literally hundreds of pitches for products billed as disruptive innovations. (My favorite? A wooden cuckoo clock, whose creator promised it would "add verve to more austere ambiences in search of a stylistic disruption.") I've been invited to conferences on disruption, seen books with titles like Disrupt! Think Epic, Be Epic, and read about USC's new innovation program, which advertises a "degree in disruption" for undergraduates.

Every industry has its buzzwords. (Ask a management consultant about "core competencies," or a banker about "synergies.") But "disrupt" is entering a league of its own. The idea of disruption has become gospel in the tech sector, and it's spreading. Insurance companies, soda conglomerates, and pet-care providers are all thinking about disruption, and taking stock of their own disruptive potential. The New York Times, which for years has run a tech column called "Disruptions," put the concept front and center in its Innovation Report.

But when everything is disruptive, nothing is. Which is exactly why it might be time to kill the word disruption altogether.

For starters, the word is frequently used incorrectly. "Disruptive" doesn't mean "inventive," "unorthodox," or "cool." It has a specific, concrete definition that originated with Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen's 1995 paper, "Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave, and his 1997 book, The Innovator's Dilemma. Christensen defined "disruptive innovation" as the process by which "technologically straightfoward" services and products target the bottom end of an established market, then move their way up the chain until, eventually, they overtake the existing market leaders.

By this token, lots of today's "disruptive" start-ups aren't disruptive at all. Oculus Rift is an innovative virtual reality company, but it's not a low-end entrant into a market dominated by incumbents. The smart thermostats made by Google-owned Nest are very cool, but at $249 apiece, they're not disruptive, either. Tesla Motors may revolutionize the auto industry and render fossil fuels obsolete, but it's not disruptive in the classic sense, since its approach has been to start selling to high-end buyers with the hope of eventually moving downmarket, and since incumbents in the auto industry are collaborating with Tesla, rather than ignoring it. (Harvard Business Review, which published Christensen's original definition of disruptive innovation, agrees it's being overused. Maxwell Wessel writes: "If a start-up starts launches a better product, at a higher margin, to an incumbent’s best customers — that’s not disruption. That’s just … innovation.")

In this week's New Yorker, Jill Lepore deconstructs Christensen's writings on disruptive innovation — pointing out, for example, that many of the case studies he uses to illustrate what happens to a disrupted incumbent aren't supported by history. For example, although Christensen writes that U.S. Steel struggled to adapt to disruptive innovation in the form of "minimilling" — a process for making cheaper sheet metal — what really differentiated U.S. Steel from its minimilling competitors was that U.S. Steel had labor unions and minimilling companies didn't. The "disruptive" part of minimilling wasn't the technology, in other words — it was money-saving labor arrangements. Lepore concludes:

Unless you already believe in disruption, many of the successes that have been labelled disruptive innovation look like something else, and many of the failures that are often seen to have resulted from failing to embrace disruptive innovation look like bad management.

The start-ups that are genuinely disruptive — AirBnB and Uber among them — are often also the ones with the most legal and political tangles. Which brings me to my second beef with disruption obsessives: its use as an all-purpose rhetorical bludgeon can distract us from the real issues with emergent products and companies.

Frequently, when start-ups working in heavily regulated industries encounter resistance from lawmakers or industry overseers, the concept of disruption is invoked almost instinctively. "But we're disruptive!" the start-up pleads. "How can you be against disruption?"

The problem with this reaction is that it lumps all opposition to new technology into the same category — anti-progress Luddites protecting the status quo at the expense of innovation. In reality, motives differ widely. Maybe a flashy new biotech start-up is being opposed becuse regulators are in the pocket of Big Pharma. Or maybe the FDA is holding it up because the founder is a charlatan selling fake stem-cell treatments to children. When every new innovation is cast as disruptive, there's no way to distinguish between legitimate opposition and mere protectionism. The effect on honest conversation is chilling: As Michael Bartel puts it, the dominant view becomes one in which "any objections to change are irrelevant, because change itself is necessarily good."

We know that not all disruptive change is good, of course. (As Lepore points out, "When the financial-services industry disruptively innovated, it led to a global financial crisis.") But much of it is. It's hard to argue that we're not better off with email instead of postal mail, or cars instead of horse-drawn carriages. And I like using Uber, AirBnB, and any number of other innovative start-ups. I'm not opposed to the concept of disruptive innovation, just the incessant droning on about it, and the unfortunately common practice among corporate executives of blindly waving the flag of disruption instead of engaging in real discussions about their creations.

The only way to assess the effects of new technologies is to cut the pretense, get rid of the red herrings, and think carefully about what's really at stake. Nothing bothers industry outsiders more than being hammered with meaningless rhetoric, and nothing will slow technological progress more than a refusal to have good-faith conversations with those in power. In other words, for actual disruption to work best, "disruption" has got to go.