It has become a buzzword that has found its place in the zeitgeist of our times. However, it may require some effort and energy to understand what it means, or rather, what it meant originally. Understanding its origins is important and indispensable to understanding its application.

We ought to be concerned with its popularity and ubiquitous usage in recent times. Its origins as a buzzword is in technology and business. Prof. Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School used the term “disruptive innovation” to refer to a particular type of innovation which was elaborately explained in his seminal work – “The Innovator’s Dilemma”.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, What is Disruptive Innovation? authors Clayton M. Christensen, Michael E. Raynor and Rory McDonald express concern over the hijacking of the term “disruption.” In their words, “Too frequently, they use the term loosely to invoke the concept of innovation in support of whatever it is they wish to do. Many researchers, writers, and consultants use “disruptive innovation” to describe any situation in which an industry is shaken up and previously successful incumbents stumble. But that’s much too broad a usage.” (emphasis as supplied by authors). They fear that the usefulness of the disruption theory is undermined if it continues down this path.

Though their explanation is limited to technology and business, I believe everyone who uses the word ought to understand it as it was originally used in this realm. Disruption happens when a new entrant successfully topples an established player in a very specific way. The new entrant focuses his business on the lower end of a market, a segment overlooked by the giants of the industry. Then, the newcomer moves to more profitable segments of the market – that is upmarket, while keeping their competitive advantages. Finally, when the newcomer woos the customers of the established players driving the latter out of business, disruption has occurred.

Though my summation of the process above is short, it is imperative to decipher it deeply. Not all instances of sudden change and fallen juggernauts make moments of disruption. If looked closely, disruption is a process. The authors assert that one of the most lauded enterprises of our times, Uber, is not a disruptor at all! They say to understand whether a disruption is imminent, it must be understood how it will strike, if the symptoms don’t match, what awaits may not be a disruption in its real sense. The authors claim Tesla is not a real disruptor by this definition.

The Need of the hour – Richer vocabulary.

The way we think is often limited by the limitations in our cognitive abilities. When we think with language, the impact of the language’s limitations is visible. Language is a primary tool with which we work in our heads. This is both an asset and a limitation. Everything that seems to topple the existing is being termed an event of disruption. This is truly troublesome. We need more words that would help us separate the various ranges that exist in the disruptive spectrum as understood by a layman.

Blogger Alice Bell Reeves had penned this need for neologism beautifully in her 2015 entry. Today, the word “Depression” is used in so many ways that it never conveys clearly the exact feeling of the person uttering it. What she has expressed is a dilemma facing a significant proportion of the world, some 350 million according to the World Health Organization – WHO. There are different medical terms for different types of depression, like Major Depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Atypical Depression etc. These words are mostly used by practitioners and given out as diagnoses. Each one manifests differently and provokes different symptoms. Imagine the peril of the doctor who has to diagnose these different disorders when all patients only say, “I feel depressed!”

Cultures that live in frosty landscapes like the Inuit have more than one word for snow. This indicates a few things; first, that they have observed their surroundings very carefully, and second, they distinguished subtle differences carefully. Snow is fundamentally water and some air, but it is called by different names when in different forms. We would definitely stand to benefit if we expressed different changes with varied words and phrases instead of using the blanket term “disruption”.

It is crucial that we look at everything we wish to understand with a scientific lens. For us to do that, we must carefully refrain from overlooking the works of experts who have contributed significantly in understanding a process or phenomenon. Disruption is no outlier to this rule. We would be doing a disservice to the work and career of many if we take to a reductive understanding of an important phenomenon like disruption.

The next time you call something a disruption, I implore every reader of this blog post to ask yourself, “Is that really disruption?”


Is that really Disruption?
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