What Really Counts As Digital Disruption?
I'll be first to agree that "disruption" is an overused word. I hear it all the time — companies pitching me their new business idea describe how they're going to disrupt this or disrupt that. And here at CES 2013, I see and hear the word disruption everywhere I turn. Sometimes these companies really mean disruption. But often, they just mean that they're going to use technology to compete aggressively. Instead of simply saying "compete," they invoke the moral authority of Clayton Christensen and say they intend to "disrupt" the rest of the competitive field.
My concern with the overuse of the word disruption is not just that it waters down the power of the ideas behind disruption. It's that a muddy understanding of disruption will stop us from comprehending just how powerful digital disruption will be. Because the addition of digital to the word disruption does not merely enhance it, it accelerates it, making digital disruption orders of magnitude more powerful, a case I made in late 2011 and a case that has only strengthened since.
However, digital disruption is only orders of magnitude more powerful than traditional disruption if the thing we're talking about is a genuine digital disruption. That's why I get discouraged when some people find out that my upcoming book is called Digital Disruption and they automatically say, "I work in Silicon Valley so I already understand that," or "I'm mobile-social, so I know what you're talking about." (Puzzled sidenote: Why is mobile-social increasingly used as a single word in valley conversations?) News you can use: Geography or buzzword proficiency are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for digital disruption. Some people mistakenly assume that they are being digitally disruptive when they achieve a breakthrough in software or hardware development, presuming that digital disruption is really a euphemism for invention. Here again, not true. Building a better digital mousetrap, as it were, does not automatically lead to digital disruption.
Digital disruption requires rethinking the entire business, not just one's technology portfolio. It requires first thinking and then behaving like a digital disruptor. Digital disruptors depend on very specific tendencies and patterns, each of which I painstakingly describe in my upcoming book (available February 26th). Briefly summarized, these are:
- A tendency to use and create free or nearly free digital tools.
- Aggressive exploitation of digital platforms provided by companies like Apple, Amazon, and Google.
- Happy surrender to the bold idea that the customer is ultimately in charge of your strategy.
- The preference to innovate through rapid, focused pursuit of adjacent consumer benefits (rather than overengineering products or services to fulfill a long-term vision cooked up at a brainstorming offsite).
- A habit of partnering promiscuously to deliver these benefits quickly and at low cost.
Note that none of these actually requires that you have a new patentable technology. Instead, they require that you use digital resources to provide more value to more people in more contexts than everybody else. That's digital disruption in a nutshell and it's within the reach of any individual (or company) regardless of industry or historical dependence on technology.
Don't just take my word for it, because I sure didn't. In writing the book, I verified and tested these observations across case studies and data sources to see just how robust they are. Then I submitted to the ultimate test of the ideas: I invited Clayton Christensen to read an early manuscript of the book. His response was encouraging; referring to the book he said: "McQuivey offers insights about disruption — and about the accelerating pace of disruption — that I truly hadn't understood before." You can bet that's going on the cover of the book.
In the coming months, as I hit the road speaking about digital disruption (invite me to make my case at your gathering, at forrester.com/disruption2013), I will work hard to convince people that digitial disruption is indeed headed for every team in every company in every industry. I may have to persuade them that disruption is not what they thought it was — it is neither the overused buzzword nor merely the traditional disruption Christensen first taught us. Instead, it's much bigger, much more powerful, and much more accessible than they knew.