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"Disruption" is NOT a Dirty Word

Innovation isn’t all about demolishing and rebuilding.

Wikimedia Commons
Disruption is NOT key to all innovation
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The other day I overheard this comment, “Why does innovation always have to be about disruption. That’s all I ever hear anymore ‘disruption, disruption, disruption,’ and it makes me uncomfortable.”

“Disruption” has become the current (and already overused) buzzword of the day. It seems for the moment, the Disruptor School of Thought has taken over the innovation conversation.

Disruption seems to imply disorder, confusion, disturbance, breakdown, disintegration, collapse, turmoil, upheaval, insurrection, riots, mutiny, violence, chaos, and revolution. All very scary things.

It’s true that disruption is all about shaking up the status quo. And, often that is necessary. It’s exciting to see a new invention that improves our lives for the better. In my life, microwave ovens, personal computers, and smart phones, to name just a few, have done just that.

But, innovation doesn’t have to be game-changing, groundbreaking, or transformative, and most of it is NOT. Most innovation is incremental or what is also known as sustaining innovation. It is typically customer driven as feedback to companies on what is working for them and what is not. Consumers are concerned with their own needs and problems and look to leading companies to satisfy them. They want to know, “What’s in it for me?” Smart companies are regularly surveying their clients to learn where they are failing. Smarter companies try to learn where their competition is failing as well. Then armed with this knowledge seek to improve their offerings. The typical areas of incremental or sustaining innovation include: product development, branding and marketing, process improvement, and service and support.

In the early 1970s, Burger King listened to their customer’s feedback when their competition did not, and introduced their now famous “Have it Your Way” campaign. Customers said, “I don’t like your one-size-fits-all approach, and I want you to make mine the way I like it.” The other fast-food chains ignored this on-going appeal, but in 1973 Burger King gave in, and it was an immediate success. So much so, that it changed the entire fast-food market and all the competitors had to adapt.

To a lesser degree, innovation is employee driven, by workers who are intimate with the inner workings of a company and imagine more efficient methods of operation. I believe there would be more of this if only companies provided a way for employees to communicate their ideas.

Disruptive innovation is often driven by the looming specter of creative-destruction (creative-destruction refers to a new technology rendering an old technology obsolete). Change is constant and eventually it will affect every company in some way, often ending the business. The trick is knowing how and when to change with the changes. Forward looking companies are always on the lookout for emerging trends and directions, how it might affect their business, and how to prepare for it.

Part of the communication problem with the term “disruptive” started in 1995 when Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, coined the term, Disruptive Innovation, which he describes as “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.” I have noticed that many people are using Christensen’s term without really understanding it, referring to every kind of innovation as disruptive.

An example of Christensen’s disruptive innovation, is Aldi’s grocery stores. They are targeting the low end of the market, and have reduced costs by: placing stores in lower rent suburban areas; eliminating name brands; requiring customers to provide their own bags, and pay a deposit on carts; minimal floor space with no tall shelves so that the entire store is visible at a glance; products displayed in their shipping boxes; and fewer employees, each of whom is trained in all the necessary skill sets for running the store. The savings customers receive has attracted a higher end customer, and the stores are taking market share from all of the big chains.

Many people believe that the automobile was a disruptive innovation, but in the beginning all cars were custom-built and so expensive that only the wealthy could own them. These cars were not a threat to horse-drawn conveyances. It was not until Henry Ford’s concept of standardizing parts and mass building cars on an assembly line that the cost of motorized travel became affordable to the average person, and in turn disrupted the transportation market.

When we understand the differences in the types of innovation, the concept of disruption becomes less frightening. We can prepare ourselves for innovation by becoming more comfortable with change. The easiest way to do that is by routinely exposing yourself to new things and experiences.

Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an innovation/change speaker, author, and consultant.