It only happens very rarely that a product comes to market that changes everything. That insight comes from visionary Steve Jobs, who more than anyone understood the abstract meanings of disruption and innovation. For the ordinary its meaning is more elusive. It is so elusive that society sometimes hails incremental changes as paradigm shifts.
While innovation and disruption has occurred at a much quicker pace, it is understandable that there is a need to look for the next big thing. Thousands of start-ups are sprawling up every day, and now increasingly all over the world. In past centuries there was still a wider gap between disruptive technologies. Think of the many years that passed after the telegraph was introduced before the telephone was commercialized on a scale that it replaced the telegraph. In fact, India was still using the telegraph until this year.
Creative destruction, as imagined by Joseph Schumpeter, certainly seems to happen more often these days. The iPhone alone after it was introduced in 2007 has already seen five remakes. And what some people cannot live without today did not even exist ten years ago. Of course the most prominent examples are Facebook and Twitter, but the list is endless. Still it is only a handful of products and services that are real game changers, even in our fast-paced, globalized world.
Over the past centuries, entrepreneurs have taken risks and brought products and services to market in search for changing the world. While the speed by which new technology have come to market has changed, the cycle that every technology goes through has surprisingly remained the same. The perception of society and how it slowly changes as the product moves from its inception towards mass commercialization has also changed little.
Looking from the outside, every revolutionary product started out as ordinary. Its entrepreneur as well as the perception of society was ordinary. As perception, however, began to shift, a tipping point occurs in which the potential of the product is realized. When society catches on, the process of commercialization commences. From that tipping point the technology is on the verge of disrupting its industry, or in some cases even creating a whole new one. Eventually though the technology becomes ordinary again, either by way of being replaced by something better or by being taken for granted.
This is best illustrated with an analogy. In the opening scene of The Prestige, that epic movie, which depicts the rivalry between two magicians in their drive to perform the ultimate illusion, the narrator tells the audience what every great magic trick consists of. And in fact t consists of three parts. The narrator calls the first part The Pledge: “The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, and normal. But of course… it probably isn’t.” Similarly, the entrepreneur presents a product or service to society. To the entrepreneur it is special, but to society it is just ordinary. In fact, it is so ordinary that the entrepreneur hits a wall of resistance. The perception is very much that there is little value from that product and people are wondering why to get a new product if the old one is still working. People are generally used to the status quo, and there are many who resist change, as it is not profitable for them. Sometimes the product is even criticized and ridiculed. And certainly it is not seen as something that could have any impact on society.
As the narrator continues, he presents the second act, which is called The Turn: “The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.” The entrepreneur is the first one to believe in the vision of how the product can change the world. Eventually investors become persuaded, and slowly people are catching on as its commercial viability is being recognized. The perception changes, albeit slowly. People are fooled because they are beginning to overestimate what the product can do.
The narrator continues with the third part: “But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige’.” To make the analogy work, eventually as the product transforms from ordinary into something extraordinary, people are overshooting its expectations. There is no disappearing as it is in the movie, but usually the product eventually becomes ordinary again as people and society grows accustomed to it. It has simply vanished being something extraordinary. And we all can relate to this that whenever we get a new phone or television, that we quickly take for granted after only using it for a few times.
And this is where studying history is so important. Understanding these patterns is useful. Making predictions is difficult, especially when it concerns the future, it was once jokingly said. Ultimately, however, to understand and recognize the next wave of disruptive products one needs to grasp how perception is changing. While technology is often singular, meaning that every new technology is different from the past one, how people view it at the beginning and as it becomes more valuable to them does not. As value follows perception, one is better equipped to recognize future disruptions.