We let the facts do the talking.


This post originally appeared on LinkedIn, on August 2, 2016. Visit the page to view more posts by our Founder & COO, Ahmad Itani.

I keep hearing the word disruption everywhere I go. ‘Apple eliminates the headphone jack’ – disruption. ‘Windows relaunches an algorithm’ – disruption. ‘China prints a 3-D home’ – disruption. ‘A Pikachu escapes without being hunted’ – disruption indeed!

I beg to differ.

I believe disruption has been with us – in one way or another – since the evolution of mankind. Purists often argue that it was Clayton Christensen who coined the word ‘disruption’ in 1995. However, what Christensen and his co-author Joseph Bower really focused on were disruptive technologies. In fact, his original paper was titled ‘Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave’ and spoke purely from a technological perspective. It was much later, when he released his sequel ‘The Innovator’s Solution’ that he replaced the term ‘disruptive technology’ with ‘disruptive innovation’ because he recognised that few technologies are intrinsically disruptive or sustaining in character; rather, it is the business model that the technology enables that creates the disruptive impact.

Disruption then became a business model. Before we knew it, everyone was quoting Christensen and talking about disruption. What everyone chose to ignore was the fact that Christensen spoke about ‘disruptive innovation’, NOT disruption itself. Which is where I believe we are not being factual.

In my opinion, the problem is not with Christensen’s work, but with the fact that the term he coined was also confused with how it is normally used in a variety of contexts. It is important to remember that disruption is a rich field of study with over 80 years of research. It is not the same as disruptive innovation, which is a very specific type of market change when it refers to change in purchase criteria of a customer segment.

Disruption is a widely used word, with different meanings in different contexts based on how it is used. Sometimes this varying usage causes confusion.

In businesses, most often, disruption is used to denote a displacement of an incumbent firm by another firm (e.g. Apple disrupted Blackberry) and it originally refers to what Joseph Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’ all the way back in 1930.

Second – and a very common usage, is to refer to a very big innovation that involves massive change. Take for example the smart watch, using completely different technology than a quartz watch. While people use disruption here to denote a massive change in technology, they often also assume that such a massive change may lead to the displacement of an incumbent firm. That is not always the case. Nevertheless, people often use the term disruptive when they mean significant (as opposed to a minor) innovation.

Thirdly – and probably most accurately, it refers to a disruptive innovation as coined and originally used by Clayton Christensen in his book ‘Innovator’s Dilemma’. In that sense, it refers to an innovation that changes the key purchase criteria of a customer. For example, a mobile phone is a disruptive innovation for landline phones because customers begin to value a new purchase criteria (the mobility of a phone). Christensen found in his research that when the key purchase criteria changes, incumbent firms find it hard to respond and thus they get disrupted.

However, let me ask you one thing? Wasn’t Galileo being disruptive when he invented the telescope? Wasn’t Da Vinci causing disruption when he said one day we would fly? Wasn’t Henry Ford a disruptor when he invented the assembly line? Weren’t Gandhi and Mandela disruptors?

For me, disruption is defined via this very simple philosophy:

Disruption can start today. It may have started yesterday. Disruption may be the next big idea. It may be the smallest ‘nanocircuit’. Disruption isn’t doing new to just do the new. Disruption is having the confidence to create new processes, new products and even new philosophies that make us wonder how there was ever a time that we lived without them.

To end, I’d like us to go back to the dictionary where disruption is defined as a verb that means: ‘to cause (something) to be unable to continue in the normal way: to interrupt the normal progress or activity of (something)

However, as we go about ‘interrupting normal’, let us never forget what was proven by the abject failures of the New Coke Formula in 1985, which sailed through consumer blind tests but was a colossal failure in the market. Or the Amplify Tablet, Rupert Murdoch’s ‘next great education changer’ which posted a whopping $371 Million write-down last year, and still found no takers.

Normal is ‘normal’ for a reason. Progress, growth, innovations and giant leaps for mankind happen through hard work, long thought and daily grind. Before you go ‘disrupting’ and before I go ‘disrupting’ let us step back, look at what we are trying to achieve, believe in it with a passion but allow ourselves the luxury of failure, because only with failure comes perfection.

Remember, the concept of Augmented Reality was first invented by Ivan Sutherland in 1961. The technology was first introduced in 2002. It went commercial in 2008. Pokemon however, has finally seen the world embrace it.

Disruption is easy. Positive, profitable disruption, not quite so.