You losers need to stop saying ‘disruption’

Disruption isn’t just a word, it’s also a theory. A very complex theory. And businesses must meet several conditions before being labelled 'disruptive', says Nick Taras.

It’s sickening. You all keep trying to disrupt each other. Nobody can focus on themselves anymore – you just want to disrupt something, somehow.

Every market is apparently being disrupted and it’s hard to tell who’s disrupting who.

Nick Taras

The race is on:

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And I don’t think it is actual disruption you’re after. I think you just like the word.

You people weasel-ed this vile, phony, disease of a buzzword everywhere.

You hosted conferences on disruption; You wrote books on disruption:

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You filmed documentaries on it:

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You even put it in your job titles:

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The word has become so disruptive it has somehow become prone to disruption itself:


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Since I started working in marketing, ‘disruption’ has grown more irritating and irrelevant each day. And if you also work in marketing – or for a start-up – you’ve heard all about disruption.

You’ve no doubt seen a Keynote put together by a high-fiving strategist saying, “Our vision: to be the Uber of Tupperware.”

But ‘disruption’ was a negative word growing up. In my school, if a teacher described a student as ‘disruptive’, it meant he was drawing dismembered male genitalia on other students’ homework. A ‘disruptive innovator’ would’ve been a student who drew testicles in a revolutionary way – perhaps using someone’s graphics calculator.

So who disrupted this definition?

It turns out the word is attributed to a certain disruptive innovator. In 1995, Clayton Christensen – a Harvard Business School professor and the Anti-Christ – wrote an article called Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave. Much like the guy who created Skynet in Terminator 2, Christensen had no idea that his invention would destroy the world as we know it.

In his Satanic bible, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen argued that companies fail because they underestimate their least threatening competitors. CEOs focus on tailoring expensive products for high-end customers. Start-ups can then develop cheaper products to appeal to low-end customers – and ultimately take over with their simpler, cheaper offering.

Wikipedia disrupted Encyclopedia Britannica. Digital downloads disrupted CDs.

I just couldn’t believe that my daily frustration could be traced back to one person. I had to give CC a piece of my mind. Unfortunately for him, he has a Twitter account.

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There was no reply, possibly because Christensen is away on a pagan goat-sacrificing ceremony.

So I dug deeper. Max Nisen, a Business Insider writer and fellow crusader against disruption, says, “The result of Silicon Valley’s fascination with the term, as well intentioned as it might be, was to render the word useless. Every time a company creates something new, beats another one out, or applies data or software to a new industry, it has instantly ‘disrupted.’”

As Max points out, the golden child of disruption, Uber, didn’t really disrupt anything. It’s more convenient and an improvement on the taxi system, but just because a new start-up is offering a product or service that’s better or cheaper doesn’t mean it’s disruptive.

A disruptive innovation lets those at the bottom of a market access a product or service that has usually only been available to people with heaps of cash or skills. PCs replacing mainframe computers. Online courses pushing into higher education.

So ‘disruption’ isn’t just a word – it’s actually a theory. A very complex theory. Businesses must meet several conditions before being labelled “disruptive”.

So maybe it’s not Christensen’s fault at all – the real demons are marketers who bandy the word around willy-nilly. Maybe I was a little harsh on old mate Clayton. In fact, in a Harvard Business Review article last year, he agreed with me, writing, “the theory’s core concepts have been widely misunderstood and its basic tenets frequently misapplied.”

If you want to use ‘disruption’, fine, but try understand it first. That Harvard Business Review piece is a good start.

Otherwise you could end up looking more like an idiot than The Rock

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Nick Taras is a senior content writer and strategist at DT



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