With so many technology buzzwords out there, I thought about making them the subject of another article. The first one I wrote barely scratched the surface. As I started thinking about which words to focus on this time around, one stood out to me so much so that I’m giving it my undivided attention. No, not Momtrepreneur (although I do like that one). I’m talking about disruption.
Stop here. When you read the word disruption, what happened? What feeling did it elicit? Disruption is one of those polarizing concepts. Depending on your nature and experiences, either it makes you grimace and your stomach ache or it makes you smile and do a little dance. I’ll try to be balanced in my approach to discussing disruption, but you should know I’m in the group that’s smiling and dancing.
Harvard professor and disruption guru Clayton Christensen said disruption displaces an existing market, industry, or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile. It’s at once destructive and creative. So grimace and dance!
In business, disruption is a radical change in an industry or business strategy (positive or negative). The invention of the assembly line and wireless technology disrupted the 20th century just the way Uber, Spotify, Airbnb, and Betterment are disrupting today’s status quo.
Disruption changes things. Disruption doesn’t like the status quo. Disruption isn’t okay with the way it was always done. Disruption is painful, that is, until it’s not. If all of us or every business were disruptors, life would not be pleasant. We can only take so much disruption.
Please don’t mistake my love of disruptors as a lack of appreciation for the stabilizers. Disruption does have a “sexy” association with it. Everyone wants to be a disruptor. But the key to success is not being like someone else or molding yourself into the sexy word of the day. It’s about being your true self. Any company or person being anything but that will struggle.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO DISTINGUISH TRUE DISRUPTION?
True disruption is certainly important to identify from a competitive standpoint. You can lead the pack, be a first follower, or get left behind. If you aren’t on top of what the market needs and what the market has to offer, your business is at risk.
When a disruptive technology or idea debuts, why do some competitors ignore it completely, while others copy it or become pretenders? Why do disruptors usually enter the market instead of incumbents stepping up? We’ve all seen the pattern over and over, so why do we continue to follow it? How many meetings have there been where someone says, “We don’t want to become the next Blockbuster.” My guess is a large percentage of the time companies fear change even more than they fear the bus they see coming.
At this point, I could talk about how to stay ahead of your competition—how to know when to disrupt and when to hold tight. Instead, I’d rather dig into why it’s important to distinguish true disruption in your vendors (versus your competitors).
We all engage with third parties. We all have companies calling non-stop trying to sell us something. They usually have one of two pitches: 1) Look at us because we’re big and bad and stable; OR 2) Look at us because we’re new and shiny and disruptive. Sometimes you’ll get the vendor who claims to be both. My advice to you – RUN! If a company doesn’t have a history of being disruptive, its plea of being disruptive is usually just an attempt to imitate someone else.
I think the ability to distinguish true disruption is critical to running your business. Every new product that comes to market is going to say, “We’re disrupting the market, so look at us.” Why wouldn’t they? It’s a great marketing technique to instill fear about missing the bubble, but not all new products are disruptors. Some of them are just screaming kids and some are stabilizers playing dress-up. Being able to distinguish between them can give you the edge. You don’t want to bounce around changing constantly, trying not to miss out, but changing rarely or never is dangerous too.
If you can distinguish true disruption and get on board early and embrace it, you often can influence the direction of the disruptor and realize first mover and other positive impacts on your business.
THE ART OF DISTINGUISHING DISRUPTION
So how can you tell if a new disruptive technology is something to pay attention to or not? How can you tell if it can help you and if the timing is right to adopt a new system, process or platform into your operations? Start with these three tips.
1. Learn about the founders and WHY the business exists. Disruptors follow their passion, foregoing all social and business norms. Disruptors rarely do what they do solely for money; they do what they do from an intrinsic force to change or improve something or make a product, service, or industry better. That’s not to say they don’t want to make money. It’s just rarely the driving force. A founder with a passion does not guarantee disruption, but a founder without passion almost guarantees it won’t happen.
2. Rate your reaction. Do you think, “Genius, why didn’t this happen sooner” or are you less than excited? Many claims of disruption are really more of an incremental improvement to the current system or service. It’s nice but probably not a game changer for your business. If the new option seems strange or even a little scary, it’s more likely to be a disruptor.
3. Know yourself. Distinguishing disruption is as much about knowing yourself and your limitations as it is about understanding the business you’re evaluating. Some people are chronically conservative. Scared to make a move. Scared that any wrong move puts their future at risk. There’s nothing wrong with being conservative. Know and own that you’re slow to make decisions or scared to make a change. If you know that, commit to letting your logic, not your emotions, drive your decisions when distinguishing disruption. Others are on the constant quest for perfection and will jump on board and change with little thought, excited to see if it’s the Holy Grail. There’s nothing wrong with that either. It makes life interesting (and scary for the conservative). For good measure, do an extra gut check with one of your more conservative buddies and let them point out all the flaws before you jump in.
On a recent episode on HBO’s Silicon Valley, a billionaire installed a product in his home. It was called The Lady. Through the home’s PA system, The Lady would tell the billionaire’s son when it was time to take a bath, do his homework, go to bed, and the like. The billionaire said it allowed him to be a friend to his son, because The Lady would take the fall as the bad guy. The product had disrupted fatherhood! Hopefully our tips would have saved you from inventing a product like this!
Good or bad, disruption will happen. If it can happen in the cab industry (Uber), it can happen anywhere. How often and when it happens will vary. There’s no Magic 8 Ball, so your ability to distinguish which is really a disruptor and which is noise could significantly improve your chances of winning.
In today’s fast-moving, constantly changing, technology-driven world, there’s no better time than now to take a look around and see what you can see. Who knows, you just might stumble onto a great disruption that can make your business better or you might just learn something new. Either way, you’ll be better able to spot disruptors and leverage them to disrupt your competition.
Stephanie Alsbrooks, CEO and Chief Disruptor
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