As a co-founder and longtime chief innocat-herder of the weekly Twitter chat Innochat, I've been amazed at how often the chat seems to turn on participant's different interpretations of words. And of course, each misinterpretation serves as a portal into someone else's semantic universe. I've often joked that one day I'm going to start #semantichat, a chat where we'll just choose a word and spend an hour discussing the different nuances and connotations we bring to it. Something like digging up a clump of dirt with a spade and watching earthworms scatter.
It's been quite intriguing to watch my #semantichat concept play out across various business publications in response to Jill Lepore's thorough spading of the term "disruption" in a June 2014 New Yorker article. I once worked in communications for Innosight, the consulting firm co-founded by Clay Christensen to put his theories of disruption into practice. I liked Clay and the folks at Innosight, so I was a bit taken aback by Lepore's "shame-on-you" tone. Clay isn't the one who made disruption into a religion — he was just calling it like he saw it.
Coincidentally, the week before Lepore's article came out, I had a conversation with my former boss Scott Anthony, Innosight's managing partner and a prolific writer who has spent a great deal of energy and time over the past 10 years or so refining the initial theory of disruption. Scott said, "If Clay had to do it all over again, I don't think he would have used the world 'disruption'." There was more to the conversation, but the point was that 'disruption' was a word that carried a lot of connotational baggage, some of it tech-focused and much of it negative.
And that baggage is heavy. So heavy it distracts people. The weight creates an either-or — you're the disruptor or the disrupted. No extra points for guessing which is better!
Lepore is right in her observation that the language of disruption is a language of fear and anxiety. It distracts us from a bigger conversation about innovation, which has become such a big-tent word that it's practically meaningless. It also distracts us from the practical considerations of growth, progress, transformation, and ________ (insert your own noun here).
And sadly, focus on disrupt-or-be-disrupted can also cause us to lose sight of the very thing we *should* be focused on — the business model. The disruption is not the technologies, the people, the companies. Disruption comes from the business model — how the organization creates, delivers, and captures value. The business model is where growth, progress, and transformation start.
Focusing on disruption is like trying to create a "viral" video. Better to focus on creating on a solid, workable business model. And if you really want to avoid being disrupted, don't whine about it. Instead, focus on creating a business model sandbox for your company.