The idea of disruptive innovation has moved from academic insight to of-the-minute buzzword to mainstream cliché: The “Uber of this.” The “Netflix of that.” Every new product or service claims to be disruptive, and every entrepreneur grabs for that golden ring. Hillary Clinton recently said that she was looking for “innovative, disruptive ideas that will save capitalism for the 21st century.” You know a phrase has jumped the shark when politicians are using it.
In response, the pundits are declaring disruption dead. New studies claim to strike down the original evidence behind the theory. There is, according to the Atlantic, a “growing disjuncture between all this talk of disruption and its actual practice.” While innovation itself has never been more valued, disruption, its trendy cousin, seems to be facing a backlash.
So, is disruption really dead? No. But it has evolved.
Disruptive innovation sells itself as revolution. An inciting event—a new product, service, technology, or even a brand—comes along, and “bang!” The world changes. We all suddenly rent movies from the couch instead of going to the video store. But I believe that it always has been, and is now more than ever, about evolution.
Since 2000, businesses have gotten older. The number of startups has decreased. You would expect disruption to slow. And yet, innovation continues. We have 3D printers that print candy. A belt that automatically loosens itself. More virtuously, a nearly-invisible hearing aid that connects to your iPhone, and biometric security devices that use your eyes and ears to protect your data and identity.
The disruption storyline tells us that large, established businesses lumber along, while nimble upstarts fill in market gaps with a new approach that kills off the old guard. This sounds remarkably Darwinian. But while disruption theory predicts that the dinosaurs will die out – and some certainly have – it doesn’t account for all of the organisms that evolved in order to survive.
To pursue the analogy, human beings didn’t arise out of nowhere to dominate the ecosystem (for better or worse) – we originated in those first little mammals scurrying at the dinosaurs’ feet. It took time. And even the dinosaurs didn’t all disappear. Some grew wings; scaled down, found new niches. Many of today’s most successful critters count the old guard as their ancestors.
This is the less trendy, but more realistic, future of disruptive innovation. For every Uber, there will be one hundred more companies that evolve toward innovation through culture and technology. Twitter emerged from a podcast syndication service into a micro-blogging platform. Starbucks started out selling espresso makers. Nintendo began as a playing cards manufacturer in the 18th century Japan. And Apple, of course, pivoted from niche PCs to a string of failed devices before refocusing on elegant, user-friendly consumer electronics. The iMac and iPod were not born in a vacuum.
Today, Darwinian disruption will grow from APIs that connect previously disparate systems, the dissolution of artificial sandboxes, If This Then That (IFTTT). It will feed on a Future of Work mentality that replaces work/life balance with work/life collaboration, a blending of the personal and professional into a single passionate thread. It will occur more quickly than ever in changing corporate cultures that not only allow for the possibility of failure, but actively encourage it.
Disruption isn’t dead. The process has simply shifted from revolution to evolution. The businesses that succeed will not appear out of nowhere. They will reinvent themselves for survival.