Argy-bargy over disruption

Disruption is a word that is getting a lot of attention lately. First as an elegant theory it explained why well run companies failed. Then regardless how industries and companies failed, people started using it indiscriminately. Now the original coiner is now alarmed.  This month, Clay Christiansen has written an article in HBR – re-clarifying what disruption means and its rightful use.  Bhaskar Chakraborti, an expert in innovation from Tufts explains in an article the misuse issue is rampant and in a way why. His article links to several articles other articles in – New Yorker and Harry Lewis. Even The Economist has a take in it.

Words are known to evolve from their original definitions as language evolves, guided by changes in usage. Ask the purists and they will tell words like free-market or Marxism have been stretched and frequently used in very loose ways that often extend far enough to undermine its original meaning.

We after all live in the a world that does not run with the philosopher’s rigor in definitions. But what bothers the article’s authors is the fact that the term disruption is being used in cases when it is not a disruption according to their definition. Uber is not a disruption, for example, nor are many others as cited in the article.

There are two conditions that are necessary to qualify as a disruption- 1) disruption happens from lower end of the market or a new market and 2) it does not happen unless the quality catches up to the needs of the mainstream customers.

The authors argue that if these conditions are not made – then it is sustained innovation – e.g., Tesla’s breakthrough technology is just an innovation and indeed not a disruptive one since it is not addressing the low end of the market and the quality is already pretty high for what the mainstream customers would desire. So it is a distinct market segment that is looking for something different and is willing to pay the premium.

While I understand the theory and it is a neat one to distinguish the disruptive forces, I find it hard to understand and forecast disruptive innovation. In hindsight and after the fact, it is very easy to detect an innovation and term it as a disruptive innovation. But a priori I see this as just another strategic bet. For example, we can imagine battery storage can be potentially disruptive – if the chemical attributes can improve to meet the minimum thresholds for a economically viable battery. But how do I know when the next advances will happen or even ever happen.

I end up asking the same strategy question.  What do I have to believe the advances to be to qualify for a disruptive trajectory? The framework gives no insight.  If thats the case – do we really need the disruptive innovation framework? Or a plain vanilla strategy framework will do. Are disruption problems a separate class of problems or just another name for a subset of traditional strategy problems? I am leaning towards the latter.  As the economist points out, the term disruptive innovation may be too narrow,


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