Disruption – from differentiator to white noise.

I hear about disruptive technologies every day. Every technology is claiming to disrupt an existing process or way of life that will change the way we do things forever. The truth is that the term ‘disruption’, while once newsworthy creating competitive advantage for a product or service, has now merely become white noise. It is overused and over claimed. A couple of years ago I was a strong advocate of disruptive technologies actively positioning my clients’ products as disruptive if they filled any gaps in the market. The key word here is ‘if’. These days, I’d rather steer clear of that term and advise my clients to create competitive positioning using the ‘blue ocean’ strategy.

The fact is that there is a big difference between innovation and disruption. Both the concepts relate to creating something that is either currently not available, in limited supply or has not been used to create added benefits for the users. Innovative changes in processes can improve productivity but they are not necessarily disruptive. 

Clay Christensen coined the term ‘disruptive innovation’ for a good reason – there is innovation and then there is disruptive innovation. According to Christensen, disruptive innovation transforms a market by introducing the concept of simplicity, accessibility, convenience and affordability to a product or service that was previously complex and difficult to use or acquire for a target segment.

Cloud is disruptive because it changes the way we work and yes, it offers the four concepts introduced by Christensen, but any technology using cloud to provide SaaS, Iaas, PaaS etc is not necessarily disruptive, it is innovative and clever. Apps can make life a lot easier but are they necessarily disruptive? I don’t think so. Apps are designed for mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones that are, indeed, disruptive. I agree that apps make life easier, are mostly simple to use, easily accessible and affordable, but so is a bus. I would not call bus a disruptive innovation, but it is a direct benefit of the taxes I pay. Certain apps that make something redundant maybe disruptive, otherwise they are just great innovations. 

 The key is to keep in mind that disruption gets closer to the customer in the target market and solves a problem they did not even know existed. As Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.” Now if we take the example of the internet, it changed our world for ever, because it allowed us to search for pretty much anything from our keyboards and all of a sudden our reach across the world in real time not only became possible but also widened. Social media has also changed the face of journalism and forced some publications to completely abolish their print publications migrating to online platforms. 

 While innovation improves the status quo, disruptive innovation changes the status quo. Disruption is about a complete transformation of the way people do things, not just an improvement of the existing state of play. It is the end of ‘business as usual’. By creating new markets, disruptive technologies do not play at the competitor saturation points, they create their own new and separate entry points. I really wish organisations would refrain from using the term ‘disruptive’ for every innovation. If it does not change the status quo and make something obsolete, it is not disruptive. Remember, cars made the horse obsolete.


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