'Disrupt' is a Verb!

Renee Hopkins's picture
Chat Date: 
Thu, Jul 11, 2013

The idea of disruption in innovation has its roots in academia with the late-90s publication of The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor. The idea that well-managed companies adhering to the classic rules for management -- move in the direction of the highest margins -- could still be wiped off the business map by competition that rose up from nowhere was original with Christensen. The book remains a best-seller and its recent (2011) reissue carries the well-deserved subtitle, "The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business."

Twenty-five or so years later, though, and with many sectors of the economy (not to mention many people) still suffering the blistering effects of the 2008 recession, I've noticed that the idea of disruptive innovation has become less of an adjective -- a description of what happened to mainframe computer companies, large steel mills, print media, and analog photography -- and more of a verb -- as in, "how can you disrupt?"

This came to my attention most forcefully at the World Innovation Forum last month, as I met Julien Sharp, creator of Disruptus (which we played in a chat a few weeks ago), and heard Luke Williams speak. Williams, author of Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business, teaches at NYU's Stern School of Business the lessons of disruption he learned while working at frog design.

In 25 years disruption has moved from a hypothesis that Clayton Christensen studied, which is many ways jumpstarted the movement to study innovation and understand how it could be consciously practiced and not left to chance.  For much of the past 25 years, disruption itself has been considered somewhat magical, something that just happens and that companies don't set out to do. Yet -- do we really know that Steve Jobs wasn't intentionally trying to disrupt the digital music, the cell phone, and the PC markets with iPod/iTunes, iPhone, and iPad? Perhaps he was.

In any case, the notion seems to have caught hold that disruption can be made to happen. And, as far as I can tell, if you set out to disrupt, even if you don't make it, you still have a better chance at a successful less-than-disruptive innovation. So there's no reason not to aim higher.

And happily, the ways of thinking taught by both Disruptus and Disruption can be apprehended by anyone. That's the best news of all -- like innovation, disruption is no longer magical. Ideas on how to disrupt are no longer only in the lofty heights of the Harvard Business School, but can be found in a book written in a simple "you can do this" format and a game that can be played by children. 


  1. Let's define "disruption" (it's been awhile since we did!)
  2. Disruption seems to start at the idea stage -- how can one come up with a disruptive idea?
  3. How can a company be more disruptive (in the innovation sense)?
  4. How can an individual be more disruptive (in the innovation sense)? 







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