The Fallacy of Innovative Disruption

8 August, 2016


About two years ago, I heard a respected and experienced IT Manager quip, “True innovation is disruptive, incremental innovation simply does not exist.”

I got the feeling he wasn’t joking as much as his tone suggested. But it would take me another 12 months to realize just how misunderstood “disruption” was, 20 years after its birth.

Since 1995, when the Harvard Business Review published the article that started it all, innovation theory has described two main streams: disruptive innovation and incremental innovation.

Those of us who studied innovation through the past two decades can point to multiple times both of these streams have brought amazing ideas to life in the real world. Toyota has perfected incremental innovation and baked it right into the manufacturing process. Meanwhile, disruptive innovation is clear in the technology that Google brought to the “search” domain in the late nineties.

Both methods have brought us wonderful things!

So why do some people think the only way to innovate is to disrupt? And how do they get the meaning of “disruption” so wrong?

Overcome by the buzz

After I walked out of that meeting room, I pushed that off-hand comment about innovation to the back of my mind.  But a year later, I started to hear more and more people speak about “disruption” being the only way to advance innovation and thus humankind. There’s been a sudden and feverish movement to “disrupt”.

Popular media loves the term and has misplaced it often. Like most misunderstood buzz-words (“cloud”, “web”, “process re-engineering”…), the term has actually jumped from innovation theory to other bodies of knowledge. Recently:

  • Incumbent businesses that release a new version of an existing product have tagged it as disruptive.
  • An organization that provides services like every other one but uses a different business model is known as disruptive.
  • In some industries that have traditionally been slow to innovate, just entering the market as a competitor lets you brand yourself as disruptive!

How on earth is any of this disruptive?

I admit: given a choice of slow, reliable “improvement” and exciting, media-coverage-and-funding-worthy “disruption”, it’s clear why companies are choosing the much sexier option. Perhaps this is why everyone is rushing to use the term before their competitors to gain a small and short-lived advantage?

At this point, you’re probably waiting for a list of reasons why incremental innovation is awesome in itself. But I don’t want to fight against the irresistible pull of the buzz word.

Instead, I’m going to show you how disruptive innovation done properly is, in fact, incremental in nature.

Wait, what!?

Let’s take two examples of well-known disruptive technologies that have advanced innovation, business, and humankind: Uber and SpaceX.

Pivoting to success

Uber has undoubtedly disrupted the local transportation industry. The reason we all know this is that there actually was no such thing as a “local transportation industry”, yet somehow Uber has been able to create this industry and service it, all with one mobile application.

But Uber never set out to be a market creator or aggregator. The original mission was to disrupt the existing private car / town car / limousine industry with an original target market of New York City. Had Uber done exactly that, it would have been a tremendous disruptive innovation for that industry.

However, Uber found early on that their mission did not serve their vision as much as the founders would have liked. So Uber pivoted to a larger industry (i.e. “local transportation”) in the more accommodating target market of the San Francisco Bay Area.

The fact of the matter is that whilst Uber has made a huge impact on the way we now travel, it disrupted using an incremental technique. “Pivoting” (a term coined by Peter Theil of PayPal fame), is a way to increment toward a state that allows you the flexibility to test the market and try something new if you don’t like the results of your test.

Uber did this twice: once with the actual industry (from private car to local transportation) and second with geography (from New York City to San Francisco).

Building on success

It was Einstein that wrote “we stand on the shoulder of giants” when we propose new innovations to the world based on what we know as fact from the past.

This is certainly what SpaceX founder, Elon Musk (of Tesla fame), is doing with his vision to take humanity literally out-of-this-world.

Herein lies the increment: without the basic increment of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and the multitude of increments in tests, experiments and technologies from the likes of NASA and other state-owned space exploration organizations, Elon would not stand a chance in making his vision a reality.

Sure, some say he’s still a long way from landing humans on Mars, but what we do know for sure is that he’s taking an incremental approach. Clearly, transporting humanity to Mars is a disruption unlike one we’ve seen since the inaugural Moon landing of 1968, yet Musk realises that the way to disruption is through increments. His program of works to achieve his final vision includes:

  1. The ability to launch and land rockets back on earth.
    (Current rockets are discarded after one launch, which makes it commercially nonviable to get humanity to Mars.)
  2. Landing on Mars and the technical difficulties this will bring.
  3. Address the issues of atmosphere (or lack thereof) on Mars.

There are many more increments on this journey to a final disruption.

Disruption, step-by-step

Looking at Uber and SpaceX and innovative companies of the same stature, it’s almost disrespectful to say that these companies have enjoyed the fruits of disruptive innovation. Even the term disruptive seems like it was a quick process, one that almost serendipitously put the world into a different trajectory.

But it was not quick, it was not easy, and it certainly was not unplanned. The trajectory these companies have put the world into has been planned and re-planned many times, to ensure that the final innovation we see, use, and talk about is exactly that: disruptive.

I’m getting sick of all the cringe-worthy “disruptive technologies” in the media recently. Incrementally achieving goals and having a learning loop in place is how humanity advances the world through innovation. It’s not a new concept, it dates back to Francis Bacon (1602), then Shewhart (1939), then Deming (1956) and more recently Tanaka (1986) and Harding (1994).

So when you’re trying to disrupt an industry yourself, recognise the need to do things incrementally to give yourself the best possible chance to bring that innovation to life. Sure, it may not be sexy and it may be lots of hard work for a long period of time. But you’re doing it right so long as you stand on the shoulders of giants (even if that giant is the version of you from last week).

Don’t let the hype get in the way of your vision. Pivot, increment, sprint, learn, loop: whatever you call it, it’s the best way to get you to the elusive disruptive innovation you’re dreaming of.


“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”

Vincent Van Gough

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