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Why we Will Not Be ‘Disrupting’ Our Ways of Working

Much of the fancy talk in innovation nowadays is about disruption.

Opportunistic consultants claim we should disrupt everything – products, services, organizations, and even our ways of working. But their mantra, “disrupt or be disrupted”, can be misleading.

Despite its popularity, the term disruptive innovation is not new. It was introduced in 1995 by Clayton M. Christensen—management guru and Harvard Business School Professor. Ever since it has been an influential business idea.

Disruptive innovation is described as a process by which a product or service takes root in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors. Think about mobile phones disrupting the fixed-line telephony market.

But too many people use the concept completely out of context. If you have attended a business conference recently you were probably bombarded with a talk about the industries that have been disrupted. Think about ‘The world’s largest taxi company that owns no taxis (Uber)‘, ‘The world’s largest accommodation providers that own no real estate (Airbnb)‘, and ‘The world’s largest movie house that owns no cinemas (Netflix)‘. Sound familiar?

Opportunistic consultants claim we should disrupt everything – products, services, organizations, and even our ways of working. But their mantra, “disrupt or be disrupted”, can be misleading.

The dangers of popular talk

Christensen warned us of the dangers of this kind of popular talk in HBR and Quartz articles. For starters, he explained why Uber is not a disruptive service. Furthermore he claimed “Disruption theory is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success.” Why? Because “the theory’s core concepts have been widely misunderstood and its basic tenets frequently misapplied.”

And he has another concern. “What we didn’t anticipate, and what in many ways was a fault of mine, was that the term disruption has so many different connotations in the English language, that it allows people to justify whatever they want to do as, “Oh, this is disruptive,” and they don’t ever read the book.”

“In our experience, too many people who speak of “disruption” have not read a serious book or article on the subject. Too frequently, they use the term to describe any innovation, or to describe any situation in which an industry is shaken up, or when previously successful incumbents stumble. But that’s much too broad a usage.”

Conventional innovation

Because the term disruption is now misused we could overlook a much more conventional innovation process. This conventional innovation is innovation that does not significantly affect existing markets, and may be called evolutionary or revolutionary.

Evolutionary innovation means an innovation that improves a product in an existing market in ways that customers are expecting. And revolutionary innovation means an innovation that is unexpected, but nevertheless does not affect existing markets.

There are two main ways in which disruptive innovation differs from conventional innovation:

  1. Disruptive innovation often takes longer to develop than conventional innovation. Simply, the latter does not significantly differ from existing products or services.
  2. The risk associated with a disruptive approach often seems higher. Because traditional organizations prefer to play safe, most disruptive innovations are produced by outsiders/entrepreneurs, rather than by insiders or existing market-leaders.

The fundamental problem

Because disruptive innovation is usually introduced by outsiders, it is hard to relate to organizational change. While disruptive innovation has the power to radically change products and services, it will very likely not have the power to radically change our organisations or our ways of working.

Sure, challenging the status quo in our ways of working may or may not be initiated by outsiders. But real change within an organization has, ultimately, to be driven by insiders—the leaders and employees themselves. It is very unlikely that organizational change is achieved with outside ‘experts’ screaming from the sidelines.

It is very unlikely that organizational change is achieved with outside ‘experts’ screaming from the sidelines.

Worse still, calling everything a disruption can cause more harm than good. As Christensen explains: “If we call every business success a “disruption,” then companies that rise to the top in very different ways will be seen as sources of insight into a common strategy for succeeding. This creates a danger: managers may mix and match behaviors that are very likely inconsistent with one another, and thus unlikely to yield the hoped-for result.”

Revolutionary innovation

This is why connecting disruptive innovation with organizational change is just plain nonsense and why there should be fewer talks about disrupting our ways of working. Instead, we should rather be talking about transforming our ways of working.

Because disruptions don’t normally have a clear purpose, neither do they have a clear direction. That’s why, when we talk about changing organizations, we do not talk about a disruption. We talk about a revolution.

Revolutions, on the other hand, do often have a clear purpose, and a clear direction. They also have a desired end state, often with a positive impact. This end state can be communicated as an ideal outcome; one that employees can imagine.

We encourage organizations and employees to talk about their workplace revolution as a journey, an adventure or a cause they can join. And make it loud, so the entire organization can join in.

We call upon all of you, outsiders but especially insiders, to actively join this revolution to change our out-dated organizations from within. Because, only when we manage to combine our collective forces might we ever see the much-anticipated shift in our ways of working.

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