Disruptive is not quite as disruptive, it seems

Reuters has a great little tool showing the evolution of various buzzwords (via Boingboing). One of the worrying things is that “disruptive” is showing a remarkable growth:


I see this tendency (as it is with most buzzwords) that anything new (be it a technology or something else) that replaces something old is termed “disruptive”. A disruptive technology or innovation, however, as coined by Clayton Christensen, is an innovation where the incumbent companies are the ones least able to respond to it. This tends to be because the new product or service has these characteristics:

  1. Your best customers don’t want it. These demanding customers (and you want demanding customers, right?) are willing to pay top dollar for a better product – hence you try to make your product better to suit them. You then ignore the customers who does not need, nor are willing to pay, for the performance.
  2. Its performance is worse – at least in the dimensions traditionally used to measure performance. In Christensen’s original example – the disk drive industry – the existing customers wanted hard drives with more storage and higher access speed. They initially ignored the physical size of the disk drive, allowing new companies to gain dominance as new, physically smaller disk drives became available.
  3. If you entered that market, you would lose money. A disruptive innovation attacks from below – with lower profit margins. A former CEO of a minicomputer company expressed it this way: “When the PCs came, we had a choice: Selling $200,000 minicomputers with 60% profit margins, or $4,000 PCs with 20% profit margins. What would you choose?”

The funny thing is, companies launching new products keep calling them “disruptive” – do they really want to say that their products are undesirable, poor and offering low profit margins? They might want to say that, but in my view most real disruptors prefer to keep their mouths shut and build their profitability under the radar of their entrenched competitors.

In other words, if a product is launched as disruptive, it probably isn’t.