Ever since Christensen’s seminal book, the Innovator’s Dilemma[i], postulated a mechanism whereby established companies are disrupted, disruption and disruptive innovation has been front and center in discussions about innovation and its effects. But is disruption the right lens through which to view the causes and mechanisms of innovation? Is disruption necessary or sufficient for being a foundational paradigm for innovation outcomes or practices? Experience over the last 15 years of research and development of innovation theory and practice casts doubt on the predominant narrative of disruption.
When something new is introduced into the world, it is adopted and people’s and/or organization’s behavior changes as a result. This transformation, from an existing pattern of behavior to a new one, is the central dynamic of innovation – something new is introduced, it is adopted, and behaviors change. Whether or not something or someone is ‘disrupted’ by this happening is a side effect and superficial to the underlying dynamic. Paying attention to the disruptive aspects of the transformation is precisely the wrong perspective because it focuses on what is happening on the periphery rather than what is happening at the center.
Take Uber as an example. Their reason for being is to transform the way people can get from point A to point B using other people’s assets and relying on visibility (detailed information on cars, drivers, riders, etc.) and manipulation (of physical, informational and economic flows). The fact that they are disrupting the taxi industry is, to some a pleasing and to others a distressing, side-effect. It is the outsiders who are declaring the taxi industry ‘disrupted’. The people adopting the new service certainly don’t see things through the lens of disruption, they are just appreciating the new experience, adopting it and changing their behavior accordingly. Uber drivers don’t look at their new situation and potential and say ‘wow, we’re disruptive’. Uber itself doesn’t obsess on the disruption of the Taxi industry (except to the extent that the regulatory bodies are preventing it from functioning the way it needs to). Instead, they are focusing on the driver-passenger experience and promoting the adoption and behavior change that will make them successful.
In this, and many other instances, disruption is the perspective of an incumbent. A recent round-table on ‘Continuous Disruption[ii]’ even defined disruption as ‘a new offering, a new business model or a new value proposition that challenges the dominance of an incumbent leader in a particular arena and has the potential to lead to its demise’. With this perspective, one can either be a disruptor or be disrupted but it is clear that either of these two perspectives places the focus in the wrong place. As a self-proclaimed ‘disruptor’ you are focusing on the incumbents in an industry, not on the potential adopters and how to change their lives. As the disrupted, you are a victim of outside forces and are in a defensive posture, reacting to what is happening to you.
Companies who are truly disruptive are not focused on those they are disrupting. They are instead focused on transforming the world in ways they believe will be wanted by potential adopters. The disruption that occurs because of this purposeful transformation is a side effect of this transformation, not the intention.
This insight leads to a perspective and framing of the innovation dynamic that focuses on transformation rather than disruption. This is potentially a more useful innovation paradigm since it places agency and effect where it belongs, on the creator and the adopter of the new thing rather than on some other entity who may be disrupted. All innovations are transformational to some degree or another (or else they wouldn’t be an innovation). By focusing on the nature and the degree of transformation – by the adopter, by the company and by the ecosystem – a new, and more useful, perspective can be achieved than that of viewing the world through the lens of disruption.