The idea of disruption excites some people and terrifies others. Consider the recent case of The New Republic, in which a new, disruptive CEO came in and vowed to “break shit.” The company’s top journalists balked, the brand was sullied and the business still struggles. And all for what?
That was the essence of Jill Lepore’s essay last year in The New Yorker in which she argued that, “disruptive innovation is a competitive strategy for an age seized by terror” and referred to startups as “a pack of ravenous hyenas” intent on blowing things up.
Most people over thirty have probably felt something akin to what Lepore described. Yet as I argued in my reply to Lepore, she presents a false choice between blind obedience to disruption and blind obedience to continuity. Clearly, neither is a winning strategy. In truth, successful disruption does not merely destroy, but creates a shift in mental models.
Disruption Does Not Only Destroy, It Can Also Create
Disruption is not, in fact, something new. Since ancient times, from Aristotle to Ptolemy, leading all the way up to the present day, we have built models to explain how the world works and we act on those models to solve problems. Modern medicine, for example, could not exist without models like the germ theory or the structure of DNA.
Yet as Thomas Kuhn points out in his classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, we inevitably find that even the most successful model is incomplete. At first, the anomaly appears to be a “special case” and we work around it. However, at some point, we realize that the old theory is fundamentally flawed and that we need to shift paradigms.
Unlike Lepore’s disruptive “hyenas,” who revel in the destruction of the existing order, Kuhn noted that successful new models often include old ones. To illustrate the point, he offers the example of Einstein and Newton.
Relativistic dynamics cannot have shown Newtonian dynamics to be wrong, for Newtonian dynamics is still used by most engineers and, in selected applications, a great many physicists. Furthermore, the propriety of this use of the older theory can be proved from the very theory that has, in other applications, replaced it.
In other words, we use Newton’s model to create things like buildings and bridges and Einstein’s to create smartphones and GPS devices. Nothing has been subtracted, only added.
The Disruption Idea
The primary target of Lepore’s attack was Harvard’s Clayton Christensen, whose book, The Innovator’s Dilemma coined the term disruptive technology (later changed to disruptive). In her telling, he is the business equivalent of Mad Max, advocating for the destruction of the corporate order or, as she puts it, “disrupt, and you will be saved.”
You can see why Lepore is concerned. A “pack of ravenous hyenas” wildly intent on “breaking shit” certainly does sound menacing, especially one empowered by a staid Harvard professor. Visions of the 60’s counterculture abound. However, Lepore does Christensen’s work a tremendous disservice.
A more thorough reading of his work would reveal that he wasn’t, in fact, advocating for the destruction of the corporate order, but trying to save it. His research showed that once-successful firms often failed not because they lacked competence or conscientiousness, but because they were operating according to a defective model.
In essence, Christensen’s point was that businesses that fail are often not the feckless bumblers they’re made out to be. Rather that by diligently following the precepts of an incomplete model, they fall prey to assumptions that do not apply. In other words, he was helping managers recognize shifts in the marketplace and to make better judgments about how to respond.
Breaking Old Models To Make New Ones
In much the same way as Einstein’s theory, the revolutions were certainly disruptive, but also creative. Innovations like the steam engine, railroads, the internal combustion engine and the telegraph certainly changed the nature of human existence. Yet they clearly made life better, providing greater wealth, health and comfort.
Following in the Kuhnian mold, Christensen pointed out that there was a special case in which the practices derived from the established mental model fell short. Namely, he argued that when new competitors arose that targeted less profitable customers with a new business model, standard business practices would fail to meet their challenge.
So Christensen’s work was in no way an attack, but in fact an acknowledgement of the shortcomings of his own profession. He argued that by diligently following precepts of incomplete models taught in business schools, managers often fall prey to assumptions that do not apply.
In other words, all business models fail eventually. When that happens, it is exceedingly important to figure out what comes next.
How Disruption Happens
While Christensen’s ideas are noteworthy and important, they—like all models—are also incomplete and that, I think, is the source of Lepore’s confusion. While Christensen’s book focused on a specific type of business case, it also pointed to a much larger phenomenon that, when he first wrote it, was still in a nascent state.
Today, as Moisés Naím points out in The End of Power we see a great many disruptions today in politics, religion, and military affairs. At first glance these may seem to have little to do with disruptive business models, but if we look closer we find that many of the same forces are at work: small groups, loosely connected and united by a shared purpose can challenge even the most powerful among us.
In the past, bureaucratic institutions played a crucial coordinating role. It was through their vast control of assets that we were able to mobilize resources on a massive scale. Large institutions dominated because they could do what others could not. Yet now it is not control of resources that is important, but access to them.
Digital technology enables relatively small actors to synchronize their actions through networks. That, in a nutshell, is how disruption happens. It is also why we see disruption happening with increasing frequency, all around us. Power, as Naím puts it, has become easier.
The Failure Of The Revolutionary Mindset
Now we can understand the difference between disruptors that set out to destroy and those that aim to create. The former are ego driven, seeking to replace the powers that be with a different version more to their liking. The latter are inclusive, aiming to create an alternative that outperforms the present model.
Consider the case of the Occupy movement, which sought to disrupt the existing order by advocating for the “99%” against the “1%.” Yet despite the populist theme, their rhetoric and tactics were far too extreme for most people. Perhaps not surprisingly, the movement quickly died out, although its basic theme about inequality lives on.
Now look at Otpor, a similar movement that overthrew Milošević in Serbia and served as the prototype for modern political revolutions across Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. They designed their protests to appeal to the masses and garner support. Instead of insisting on ideological purity, they celebrated diversity in approaches to shared values and purpose.
Successful corporate disruptors are similar in their pursuit of values and purpose. Apple strives to make products us that are “insanely great.” Google wants to “organize the world’s information.” Tesla aims to “accelerate the advent of sustainable transport.” Successful disruptors seek to connect, not merely to destroy.
So the question is not whether disruption itself is good or bad, but disruption in the service of what? And that’s the difference between Lepore’s hyenas and the likes of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. Successful disruptors might break old models, but they build better ones that benefit us all, which is why we embrace, rather than fear them.
A previous version of this article appeared in Harvard Business Review.
Image via flickr