grand panjandrum

Peak Disruption – Are We There Yet?

23 June 2014

It’s always a sign of the ideas market lifecycle at work when articles begin to appear that say the current trend in a certain area is not actually a trend at all but a fad or something else already in existence because of reasons x and y. This is to be celebrated because it represents the beginning of the actual debate rather than populist panjandrums repeating what they’ve read elsewhere. This certainly is the case now for disruptive innovation (also referred to as disruptive strategy or disruptive technology).

Let’s take a look at the fight card. On the side of disruption, we have the current titleholders, Clayton Christensen and Joseph Bower with their 1995 seminal work, “Disruptive technologies: catching the wave”, in the Harvard Business Review. Christensen has gone on to speak, teach and write on these themes and has applied them to many specific environments such as health, the classroom and universities. Many eminent names have followed but for me, the undercard has to include Rita McGrath with her 2013 work, “The End of Competitive Advantage: How to Keep Your Strategy Moving as Fast as Your Business”.

The challengers are now lining up. These include writers as recent as today, Jill Lepore in The New Yorker, stating that “Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror”. Strong stuff indeed! As I was writing this article, I spotted Greg Satell pop up with a review (in Forbes) of Lepore’s recent work. And some say there is no universal consciousness! Just a few days earlier, I saw an article claiming that disruption was nothing more than Darwinian evolution; something I can’t agree with for reasons obvious to most who understand evolution.

Much of the counter-disruption attack comes through reviewing the case studies in Christensen’s 1997 book. Apply that to Peters and Waterman’s 1982 book, “In Search of Excellence”, and you can make similar arguments. And so it goes with any ‘benefit of hindsight’ storyline. However, the ‘au contraire’ group do raise some valid points such as ‘is this a new term for an old concept?’

Way back when I did an undergrad business degree (over 30 years btw), the lecturer in ‘fundamentals of marketing’ asked us to name the top three brands in cola drinks and burger chains. No-one could get the third place getter (and I bet most readers can’t either once they get past Coke vs Pepsi and McDonald’s vs Burger King). The point he was making was, if you can’t be first or second in a market, don’t bother. Instead, go and establish your own market. Examples abound, such as the outcomes of the mainframe, midi, mini and PC wars.

In the military world, there is also a term that relates – ‘Revolutions in Military Affairs or RMA’. Think gunpowder, tanks, air power and satellites and you’re on track to understanding the revolutions that have taken place in warfare over the years. One aspect of RMA is manoeuvre warfare and manoeuvre thinking. Wikipedia’s definition of this is as good as any; “Manoeuvre warfare is the term used by military theorists for a concept of warfare that advocates attempting to defeat the enemy by incapacitating their decision-making through shock and disruption. Its concepts are reflected by a number of strategies seen throughout military history”. In short, it abandons old concepts of taking and holding ground in favour of targeting ‘centres of gravity’ which could involve logistics, communications or public support. Many have applied these concepts to the business world (as we also do in our Torquepoint work). Richard Martin has published in simple, clear and accurate terms on these concepts.

So to return to the title question – are we at ‘Peak Disruption’? My answer is no. Disruptive strategy (or innovation or technology) is not new nor is it the only way to organisational success. But it is one way and it is a way of thinking that has stood the test of time under many guises.

To me, it is the path less travelled; the way of thinking about things differently employed by people like Ho Chi Minh and Steve Jobs – that is the DNA of disruption. I’m pleased that, nearly 20 years since Christensen and Bower’s original article, the serious debate is just getting started. And from that point of view, I am pleased to call myself the Chief Disruption Officer at TorquePoint – a little company in the small country of New Zealand that has shown it can mix it up with the best on fight night.