Treat “disruption” as a learning tool and it’s way less annoying

The New Yorker ignited a debate on the word “disruption” this week with a piece arguing that the concept is a sham, and has taken on the level of law, despite its many holes. Jill Lepore, the author:

Most big ideas have loud critics. Not disruption. Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to little serious criticism, partly because it’s headlong, while critical inquiry is unhurried; partly because disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with fogyism, as if to criticize a theory of change were identical to decrying change; and partly because, in its modern usage, innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box.

It seems Lepore has fallen into a trap: allowing PR departments to hijack an academic concept. Like every tech reporter, I get incessant pitches about some bullshit company “disrupting” something else. These aren’t professors or impartial experts — these are marketing flacks misapplying trendy words.

Because the concept itself lays out a fascinating strategy for traction:

Attack a position in the market that the incumbents avoid or don’t care about, typically because it’s low-end or low-margin, then use that foothold to expand.

Take the iPhone, which Clay Christensen, the father of disruptive concepts, famously, incorrectly thought was a bad idea since he considered it a high-end cell phone. As Dan Rowinski of ReadWrite, who understandably wants to eliminate the term all together, points out “Apple didn’t disrupt the cellphone market: It just forced it to evolve.” That’s true, but not the important part of the story. (Not to mention, every new thing in business is an evolution, so that word means even less.)

iPhones were a high-end cellphone, but in the sense of “disruption” they were a low-end computer.

That’s the eduction part of the story.

Few, including Microsoft, saw that coming. Steve Ballmer laughed at the price-tag — as a cell phone — but never realized $500 came in less than just about every Windows PC. And look where we are now. Christensen may have missed the mark by a mile — and vetting his myopia puts messenger ahead of message — but the iPhone’s upheaval of the PC industry makes for a fascinating piece of business history.

Lepore also misses the mark with the important way BuzzFeed has been conquering digital media. “The [New York] Times is a nation-state; BuzzFeed is stateless,” she writes and then vaguely compares BuzzFeed to (?) militant radicals. “Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.”

But BuzzFeed’s success isn’t simply because it lacks printing presses, union contracts and legacy technology. BuzzFeed has been successful because it started in a corner of the media market older media outlets dismissed: quizzes, cat galleries, 37 Reasons for LOL, and so forth. A “low-end” portion of the market. That was their foothold, and they perfected it. Self-respecting editors said, “What a crap excuse for ‘journalism’! Now, where’s my 2,000 words on the economics of home loans?”

And yet BuzzFeed gained traction, beat the copycats and worked its way up the journalism chain to now produce quality content competitive with the Times, in addition to the cat galleries. (At the same time the Times most successful story last year was… a quiz — an incumbent reacting to the upstart.)

I quipped yesterday that the Silicon Valley backlash to Lepore’s piece has a whiff of religion — people subsumed by doctrine attacking the naysayers. As with any teaching, codifying it destroys nuance and ossifies thinking. It isn’t binary. A “disruptive technology” is an earned descriptor, applied in hindsight, not during conferences, and as Lepore points out, no case exists in a vacuum — other factors always come into play.

The word may have been ruined by the marketing department but it still, when viewed correctly, provides a fascinating framework for strategic thinking.

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