Sometimes buzzwords become so pervasive they're almost inaudible, which is when we need to start listening to them. Disruptive is like that. It floats in the ether at ideas festivals and TED talks; it vanishes into the jargon cluttering the pages of Forbes and Harvard Business Review. There's a quarterly called Disruptive Science and Technology; a Disruptive Health Technology Institute opened this summer. Disruptive doesn't mean what it used to, of course. It's no longer the adjective you hope not to hear in parent-teacher conferences. It's what you want investors to say about your new social-media app. If it's disruptive, it's also innovative and transformational.
We can't often name the person who released a clichinto the linguistic ecosystem, but in this case we can, and we also know why he did it. He's , a Harvard Business School professor, and he wanted to explain why upstart enterprises drive better-established companies out of business. In his 1997 book, , Christensen launched the phrase that has transmogrified the English language: "disruptive innovation."
Christensen's theory goes like this. When a company succeeds at making and selling a gizmo, it commits itself to developing ever better gizmos, because their higher price yields larger profits. But that leaves a hole in the market quickly exploited by newcomers. They make stripped-down gizmos and sell them to consumers who hadn't been able to afford them before. The strappy company, having found new people to market to, grows; the senior company, having narrowed its appeal, shrinks; the challenger overtakes the incumbent; and the cycle starts anew. An old example of disruptive innovation is the disk-drive market of the 1980s. As disk drives shrank, the bigger-disk makers went out of business, even though the smaller disks were arguably inferior: They held less data and cost more per byte. A newer example is the tablet, which may be relegating personal computers to history.
Christensen's theory still has a powerful appeal, because it explains something we've all seen happen, even marked off our own decades by: the churning of businesses from start-ups to powerhouses to irrelevance or near-irrelevance. Me, I equate my youth with Microsoft's apparent lock on the future of computing; we now know how fleeting that moment was. Christensen also sidestepped the obsession with leadership that bedevils management theory, stressing the tragic inevitability of market forces over the comic mishaps of shortsighted executives. It's not that CEOs are too stupid to see disruption coming; it's that their companies aren't set up to make, or make money from, the new gizmos.
At least at first, Christensen deployed disruption theory to help managers cope with the revolutionary ferment from below that Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction." But disruptive is now slapped onto every act of cultural defiance or technical derring-do, whether it has to do with business or not, and Christensen has not tried to rein in the word's inflation. On the contrary, he has been out-punditing the pundits, publishing book after book--each with many co-authors--in which disruption theory is brought to bear first on this sector, then on that one. In the past five years, he has homed in on the social institutions--schools, public-health organizations, and the halls of government itself--he deems ripe for disruption.
You can't blame Christensen and his co-writers for all the dumb things said and done in the name of disruption. But you can spot some unsavory habits of mind in their prescriptions. For one thing, they possess an almost utopian faith in technology: online or "blended" learning; massive open online courses, or MOOCs; cool health apps; and so on. Their convictions seem sincere, but they also coincide nicely with the interests of the Silicon Valley venture-capital crowd. If you use technology to disrupt the delivery of public services, you open up new markets; you also replace human labor with the virtual kind, a happy thought for an investor, since labor is the most expensive line item in all service-industry budgets.
by Judith Shulevitz, TNR |Image