Aggressive nouns such as “disruption” are now part of our daily business speak, and entrepreneurs the world over dream of participating in the upheaval that is taking place. And yet hardly anyone is stopping to take a look at what is really happening and to put it in historical context. We are all caught up in the excited frenzy, proud to be part of it and desperate to not miss out. We rush along, convinced that those that are in front of us know the way. We follow the hype.
And yet, how many of us have stopped to think about what “disruption” really means? Can we actually use that word to describe the profound change that we’re seeing in our society? Or is it merely part of this strange new language that seems to be engulfing our meetings and business plans?
Disruption means, according to just about any dictionary that you care to pick up: “Disturbances or problems which interrupt an event, activity or process.” The key word here is “interrupt”. Substitute that with “change”, “innovate” or even “increase the market of”, and you are no longer talking about disruption. You’re talking about innovation.
In spite of what some renowned business school professors will tell you, innovation and disruption are not the same thing. True, innovation can disrupt, but the instances of that are extremely rare. “Better”, “faster”, “cheaper”, they are not disruption. They are innovation.
Disruption has as its root the Latin word for “break”. Schedules can be disrupted. Weddings, power supply, any process that can be brought to a fast stop, can be disrupted. But entire sectors of the economy do not suddenly stop working, unless it’s due to a change in legislation. Businesses close down, true, but the cause is not a new upstart with a better technology. The cause is a refusal to change. Those businesses are not disrupted. They close because of rigid internal processes, poor cash management, and a myriad of structural reasons that have been part of the business landscape since even before the Industrial Revolution.
Change is natural in business. Businesses that don’t change, tend not to survive. None of this is equivalent to disruption. It is merely evolution at work. It is impossible to deny that we live in exciting times, and that the rate of change of our society is accelerating. But to call the important changes that we’re seeing “disruptive” does our progress a disservice, and belittles what is yet to come. It makes it harder for true change to get the recognition it deserves. And it relieves markets and investors of their duty to regard new business models on their own progressive merits.
To call so much of the business innovation of our decade “disruption” is to buy into the macho, tech-speak hype. And hype is almost always damaging. It almost always implodes, affecting valid propositions along with the more tenuous, hype-based ones. Before that, however, it entices hungry players into the market that perhaps don’t have the solid vision needed to build a lasting industry. Entrepreneurs decide that if something is fashionable, there must be big profits to be had, and launch businesses based on perception rather than fundamentals. That can work, but it is extremely unlikely. The hype attracts more funds into the market, but it diverts them from the core goal of helping to build on practical innovation. It dilutes, it distracts, and it fuels bubbles that inevitably pop.
This aspiration to advance and to improve is innate to humanity. The digital revolution empowers those aspirations, it gives us the freedom and the means to get heard, and is going to lead us towards extraordinary innovations and solutions. That is what we should be focussing on. We don’t need to disrupt to propel our civilization forward. Disruption implies interruption, destruction and inefficiency. But let’s give it some credit, it does sometimes have its place. We need to reclaim the word, for situations in which it is useful. Such as, when a trend steam-rollers its way through our collective psyche, leaving in its wake confusion and insecurity. That trend deserves a bit of disruption. And that trend is disruption. So, we need to disrupt disruption, and get back to the business of progress.