radical Briefing 0027 - The State Change Theory of Disruption

You can’t open a business journal without having a headline scream “Disruption” at you (and yes, the irony is not lost on me that this very article carries the dreaded word in its title). It has become a word evoking both pangs of fear and terror, as well as a loathing for its overuse and careless application to anything which even remotely looks like something new.

Google Trends has seen a steady increase in searches for the term, meanwhile searches for “innovation” stagnate. It is telling that the second highest-ranked related search is for the term “disruption meaning”.  

Looking up the term in Webster’s dictionary from the year 1913 already defines disruption timelessly as: “[…] the state of being rent asunder or broken in pieces […]”. As a definition, this might be as good as it gets: Disruption is, at its core, making old things obsolete.

The predominant story of disruption is encapsulated in the folklore of Blockbuster’s spectacular fall from grace, brought about by the disruptive forces of Netflix. Or KODAK’s free fall after it failed to seize the opportunity its own technology, digital photography, created. And it doesn’t end here – Uber’s destruction of the taxi cab industry is another often cited example.

The story, as it is told, often goes something like this: Incumbents are so stuck in their own world, that they miss the disruptive potential of a new technology. To add insult to injury, they tend to dismiss the new entrant, believing that doing more of the same will save them, and when they finally wake up to the disruption in their industry they are just too slow to steer the ship around. During the course of this story, the focus regularly shifts to the new entrant – who doesn’t love a good, old David vs Goliath story?

The problem with this version of history is that it shifts the attention from all the things which went wrong internally to an outside force – casting David as the enemy when in reality, Goliath stumbles over his own two feet.

In our work at be radical, we found it useful to talk about disruption in the terminology of state changes: As water molecules are heated from ice (solid) to water (liquid) and ultimately vapor (gas), they transform from one state to the other. Each state change is followed by a period of relative stability until the energy in the system becomes sufficient to cause another relatively sudden shift into a new state. Everybody who has waited for water to boil, just to realize that it violently boiled over the moment we stopped watching, knows this phenomenon well. In the context of disruption, we observe a similar pattern: After a period of relative stability, change comes gradually and then suddenly (to quote Ernest Hemingway).

Additionally, the metaphor carries another useful point: As water goes through state changes, the underlying molecule (H2O) never changes – it merely transforms from one energetic state to another. The same can be said about nearly all disruptions in the business world – the underlying “job to be done” (to reference the excellent work of the late Clayton Christensen) doesn’t change. We still watch movies (more so than ever); they just don’t come on a VHS videotape we picked up in a store anymore, but are streamed straight to our TV sets. We take more photos than ever before; they just happen to be digital and on our phones instead of paper being chemically processed from film. And, in the case of Uber, we still hop into a car to go from A to B; this car just typically isn’t yellow anymore–nor does it come with a ticking meter and a grumpy driver behind the wheel.

The implications of this are far reaching and point toward what we believe is actually the biggest enemy of every incumbent organization. To borrow the words of Walt Kelly’s comic character Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.

There’s much to unpack in this statement. But most importantly, it suggests something essential about  understanding your vulnerability to disruption: Start with a hard look at yourself and your organization. 

Companies rarely get disrupted by forces outside of their control, nor do most companies get disrupted by truly new and novel products and services. Contrary to modern day folklore, what becomes disruptive is often merely innovation – a state change in the way a product or service is being created and/or delivered. And yet most incumbents struggle as their internal processes, procedures and culture get in their way.

So next time the word disruption gives you chills, let it be both a warning and an opportunity to look inside your organization – and get to work.

radically yours,

Pascal and the be radical team

P.S. Interested in learning how to “disrupt disruption”? Join us for our two week live online course FutureFWD!