Is being disruptive a business strategy?

disruptive strategy

It seems everywhere you go these days people are talking about Disruption as the next big business “thing.” There are packed disruption conferences, disruption books, disruption consultants.

But here is the nagging question I’ve had tumbling through my mind. Is it really possible to be strategic around disruption?  Is it possible for disruption to be a plan … or is disruption the explanation of what happened after the fact?

I’ve been conflicted on this because it runs counter to what I’ve learned and experienced. In graduate school I had the amazing experience of classes from Peter Drucker just as he completed his book Innovation and Entrepreneurship. In my mind this is the finest book on innovation ever written!

Some of main points of the book include:

  • Effective innovation is continuous, not disruptive
  • Almost all innovation aimed at disruption fails. Let others fail and then pick up their pieces (Apple has been brilliant at this)
  • The most effective entrepreneurs manage innovation in a way to minimize exposure and risk.

Obviously these lessons from the master have had a big impact on me. They formed my key approach to innovation for more than a decade. This is why it has been difficult for me to jump on the disruption and Cult of Failure bandwagon. Of course disruption happens. But can you really MAKE it happen any more than you can MAKE “viral” happen?

So it was timely when my friend Billy Mitchell of MLT Creative turned me on to an article in The New Yorker called The Disruption Machine by Jill Lepore. In this brilliant piece Lepore dissects the famous The Innovator’s Dilemma (an argument against continuous improvement) and makes a compelling case against Disruption as a strategy.

This article became the cernterpiece of the latest Marketing Companion podcast between myself and Tom Webster. The synaptic connections were really humming on this one as we debate the idea of Disruption Strategy. I think you’ll love it:

Or click here for episode 27 of The Marketing Companion:

Other Ways to Listen to this Podcast:

Other resources mentioned in this podcast:

The Strategy Paradox: Why Committing to Success Leads to Failure (And What to do About It)

Podcast on 3D printing as a disruptive technology

Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance by Michael Porter

Book links are affiliate links.

MLT Creative is an occasional business partner and an advertiser on {grow}.

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  • Good post, Mark. I agree that “disruption” has become greatly over-used, and really is a result one sees in hindsight, not a strategy. There are many cases of failed attempts at disruption, as you note.

    Lepore may have over-stated her case, though. She essentially accuses fellow Harvard professor Christensen of shoddy scholarship. He was quite passionate in his response via Businessweek:

  • PeterJ42

    Most people misunderstand disruption, because they grew up with the idea that a winning company comes from a better product. They get locked into an inward looking feature race with direct competitors.

    But a successful company is really about people. Those that might put their hand in their pocket for your product or service. What appeals to them. What they see as value. How it fits with their aspirations.

    Niraj Dawar put it well in his book, Tilt. He drew a big seesaw with product at one end and people at the other. He explained that while everyone was focusing on innovating up one end, there was plenty of room to try new things at the other.

    If you think that way, disruption can be a strategy. Come up with new ways of using, of paying, of bundling. And new aspirations to tie things to.

    Beware. Pushback people like Ms Lepore make arguments that, on the surface, sound plausible. Especially if you’re not fully committed yourself.

  • You should really listen to the podcast.

  • PeterJ42

    One disruptive idea is to provide things in all the formats people want to use. I’ll bet fewer than 1% of the people who read this will go onto the podcast. And podcast is a broadcast format with no opportunity to build on the ideas, query for better understanding etc.

    I’ve responded this way to provide people who don’t want to invest 30 minutes of their time on the subject to have another answer to the headline here.

  • In other words, you have hijacked the conversation and pontificated on the subject without listening to the podcast. Not really fair in my view.

  • PeterJ42

    So, in your mind, there’s two answers. One is to go to the podcast which doesn’t allow you to comment. And the other is to be told off for commenting here.

    Can you see what is wrong with this as a connection and involvement system? Or were you just trying to impose your views in the first place?

  • PeterJ42

    PS: For anyone considering the podcast it is long, rambling and showcases perfectly that speech is a slow, imprecise method of communicating information. Worse when you haven’t got your thoughts organised.

  • Thanks for listening, PeterJ42!

  • PeterJ42

    Minds need disruption too. ’80s gurus may have been right for then. But that was a different pre-computer age. That old thinking and the outdated companies it has created is the reason why disruption works. And there are so many things to disrupt – it will be with us for a while yet.

  • Interesting article…I can’t wait to hear the podcast Mark and Tom!

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  • Thanks for sharing Louis.

  • philliasphog

    Sounds eerily like a faith based proposition.

  • I believe disruption has its place but as a strategic mindset, it is not sustainable. When Detroit automakers (and every other manufacturiing industry) finally recognized Deming’s genius, it was disruptive to a very flawed process. But Deming was all about process. Nimble entrepreneurs can embrace disruption as a catalyst for attention and attracting market share. Established enterprises, especially those that rely on complex operations, customer loyalty, global risk management and investor confidence need to focus on what’s happening NOW. Of course there are those in these companies that should be all about what happens NEXT, but it is not realistic or sustainable to encourage a company-wide culture of disruption.

    I believe in a “question everything” mindset but only when a very healthy respect for the existing process is applied. I’m a natural-born contrarian and very comfortable with the idea of disruption. But this quote from Deming keeps me from being disruptive for no good reason: “If you can’t describe what you do as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing”.

    It’s likely that the topic of “disruption” is so often preached because consultants are paid to be disruptive. I wonder how often a consultant has completed an expensive engagement by saying “everything is wonderful as it is. Keep up the good work!”.

  • Really superb comment Billy. A great blog post in its own right (do it!).

    I didn’t know you were a Deming fan. I am too and totally believe in his concepts and his genius.

    The automobile changes in the 70s and 80s just infuriate me — the American makers could not even copy let alone catch up or win. I think this is a great example of how a company cannot disrupt itself (as many consultants peddle). Basically companies are made of people that want to keep things the same and keep their jobs. There are exceptions of course but it is dangerou when we look at the exceptions as templates.

    Thanks again for the time you put into that great piece of writing!

  • Everyone these days loves giving a catchy term to something to make themselves sound smarter and to make themselves stand out in the crowd, or to actually oversell a skill.

    A social media strategist and internet marketer is called a “growth hacker” – one of the most bullshit terms that exist in the industry today.

    Similarly, each time someone comes up with a brilliant idea – it’s just disruptive. That’s all. Simpler times when not everything was called genius, and not everything was called a great idea is what we need to go back to. People have been patting themselves on the back too much, which is why these terms have come about to give them a heightened sense of importance.

    Theres is no disruption. You’re just coming up with a revolutionary idea. You can’t be a disruption consultant. You can perhaps be a strategic consultant, a marketing consultant, or the good ol’ management consultant. You can be a GREAT internet marketer, you can be a social media strategist, you can be an online advertising specialist, but please don’t call yourself a “growth hacker”.

    For me – this whole disruptive mindset is similar.

  • I agree with you and your very wise comment Avtar. Thanks for this gift.

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  • Hah, not sure if you’re being sarcastic @markwilliamschaefer:disqus, but if you’re not – I greatly appreciate it! Glad we’re on the same page, everyone always says my views on this are too extreme and too rigid.

    And if you are being sarcastic, well then well played. 😛

  • No, not sarcastic at all. Great job!

  • I don’t think you can create a real market disruption in general. Market disruptions are a consequence of broader changes in an industry, often created by technology.

    You can, however, be strategic about how you react to a disruption. And you can also be somewhat ‘disruptive’ (quotes in purpose) to a market when you don’t play by the rules, like T-Mobile, Netflix and Silvercar have done.

    It’s probably a good coincidence I wrote a post on this exact topic today. I am very curious about your thoughts and comments


  • You write about the disruption in television but again I think what we call “disruption” today like it is some new thing is simply the free economic system at work. If you are not in a constant state of re-invention you will certainly be “disrupted.” It has always been that way as the makers of horse-drawn carriages will tell you.

  • laurentp

    I think its about change and context.
    If I look into the dictionary, disruption is “to break, to throw into confusion…”.
    Too negative to be a strategy on its own. A strategy has to find its root in the positive, purposeful side of the business equation. At some time, in some businesses where the broader market has changed so much but the existing way of doing business hasn’t, disruption can be a beneficial strategy.
    Like saying “look this is the future, and if we continue to work the way we do we won’t be part of it so we need to break things and change (without sometimes knowing what/how/where to change). It’s a bit of adopting a “why can’t we” mindset.

  • Your podcast demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of what disruption theory says and what a “disruptive innovation” is. A few points:

    1. ‘Disruptive’ — the adjective, is a word with a meaning independent of ‘disruptive innovation’. Disruptive innovation has a very specific meaning and pattern of occurrence, and applying the term ‘disruptive’ colloquially (as both you and Jill Lepore do) contributes to the misunderstanding of what the theory says.

    2. Most people (well over 90%, and probably close to 99%) misuse the term, haven’t read the books, and don’t understand what it is. Relying on those who have no understanding of what the theory says and what the patterns it describes are for evidence is a deliberate red herring. Both you and Lepore have done this. In fact, the irony is that Lepore’s evidence and research is so poor, she is guilty of virtually every error she claims Christensen has made. Her article smacks more of professional jealously and deliberate misrepresentation than it does of fact-based analysis.

    3. If you understand how theories develop, then you will appreciate that the first hypothesis is rarely 100% correct, and that virtually every theory has changed over time. It doesn’t mean that the theory isn’t useful and predictive, it just means it isn’t fact (or we’d call it fact, not theory). Jill’s article levels criticisms at points in the Innovator’s Dilemma (the first full articulation the theory) that Christensen himself has said were wrong and revised over time. If you want to criticize a theory, the right thing to do is criticize what it is today, not how it was first described nearly 20 years ago. For example, Newtonian physics served us well for several hundred years (and we still use the formulae for most day-to-day calculations today — for speed, distance, acceleration, etc.) But, we now know that relativity is a better description of reality. Disruption is similarly much better understood today than when the pattern was first observed and described.

    4. Disruption theory definitely has predictive value — iff you stick to the definition that Christensen gave, and apply it properly. If you mislabel things that aren’t disruptive (e.g. breakthrough, advanced, revolutionary, explosive) based on the colloquial usage rather than the proper definition, then you will find that it fails quite frequently, in the same way that if I observe that wet leaves are full of carbon and therefore could serve as fuel for burning, I will be wrong and unable to ignite them (because I’ve ignored that the water content inhibits burning).

    5. One error that Christensen corrected in later books was the notion of ‘disruptive technology’, when he realized that no technology by itself is or can be disruptive. That’s why he changed the label to ‘disruptive innovation’. Yet today, many in technology have the foolish belief that technology is what wins. In fact, it is business model (with technology) that wins.

    6. If you have disruptive potential, there are absolutely strategic things you can do to make an innovation disruptive. Similarly, if you lack the potential (the theory describes what characteristics matter), then no amount of strategy can make it disruptive (short of changing the nature of the product). Disruption can, and most often does fail on lack of execution, and if management fails to do the right things, then they will not disrupt. A simple example: if I overprice a product relative to alternatives, I have no chance of disrupting a market, no matter how good or productive the technology.

    7. Disruptive innovation is not a replacement for sustaining innovation, it’s just different. Both are valuable. From a strategic corporate perspective, disruptive innovations are necessary to create new markets and the products that will drive future revenue growth. Sustaining innovations are necessary to turn disruptive ones into cash cows that generate profit today and for the foreseeable future. Without an eye on potential disruptions, you make yourself vulnerable, and at best can sustain market average growth rates over time.

    As I’m already at risk of suffering from tl;dr, I will end by saying that anytime you want to debate this properly and speak about facts rather than beliefs, feel free to engage me. I can back up everything said above, and point out in detail all the errors that Lepore has made if you care to subject it to objective and proper analytic scrutiny.

  • I agree to an extent, Mark. However, there is a difference between natural, organic change and evolution and the major changes that alter the economics of an industry.

    The invention of the engine and the launch of the Ford Model T are specific points in time that disrupted horse-drawn transportation.

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