You can’t attend a conference, read an article, participate in a forum discussion, or have a conversation with someone in the digital marketing/emerging media industry without using this word. “Disruptive” technologies. “Disruptive thinking.” “Digital disruption.” And lest we forget, there’s even a whole series of conferences boasting this word as its title.
Forget about the fact that this word has become possibly the most overused term this year. What really spins my head is this idea that in order to succeed in any industry, one must be disruptive.
What Does It Mean to Be Disruptive?
Merriam-Webster has several definitions for the word, including:
- to break apart : rupture
- to throw into disorder <agitators trying to disrupt the meeting>
- to interrupt the normal course or unity of
To apply that to business — let’s say, toy making — is to think outside of the box (if I may use another overworked and overwrought cliche), whether you’re thinking of the final product or the process by which a toy is made. Simply say the word, and people-in-the-know will automatically equate it with innovation and cutting-edge. It implies a company that will
drag lead its colleagues and competitors into a new era, where only the fittest and those willing to be disrupted will survive.
So Toyota disrupted the auto industry with its widely-admired and -copied just-in-time or “lean” manufacturing processes. Amazon.com disrupted the book-buying and book-selling industry with its massive inventory, powerful search engine, recommendations feature, and fast shipping. And Netflix disrupted the video rental industry with its massive inventory, powerful search engine, recommendations feature, and fast shipping.
You get the idea.
In their wake, Toyota put the US auto industry on notice, Amazon basically left both indie and the big box bookstores gasping for air (with Borders breathing its last in 2011), and, well, when was the last time you rented a movie from Blockbuster? (I still remember renting movies from local indie shops in the late 1980s, only to see them fall under the wheels of the big, yellow-and-blue bus.)
Each of these well-known brands disrupted its respective industry by thinking of a better, faster, and more efficient way of delivering product to its customer. They thought long and hard about what the customer valued the most — quality, choice, ease of purchase and ownership — and figured out how to harness their resources to deliver on all of those values. They leapfrogged over their competitors by not only providing high-quality products but also figuring out even before the customer knew what she wanted what the future consumer would demand.
The Beauty and Business of Disruptive Companies
Well, we all know what happened to these companies. Occasional stumbles and mistakes notwithstanding, Toyota, Amazon and Netflix are all powerful, global brands. (Try playing a word association game with any random person you meet. Chances are, when you say “Amazon,” the world’s largest rainforest is probably not going to be the first thing to come to mind.) They disrupted their way from being small, niche companies to being some of the biggest and most well-known brand names on the planet.
Who wouldn’t want that?
Disruptive can mean not only immense profits and media attention. It can also translate to thought leadership and authority and maybe even the sexiest form of capital of all: political power. After all, can you imagine Ronald Reagan sharing the hosting duties at a town hall meeting with a twentysomething guy better known for dressing in a hoodie at work? Disruptive can make a company both rich and powerful.
When Being Disruptive Can Be, Well, Disruptive
So what’s not to like, then? Why shouldn’t every company aim for being the disruptive force in its industry?
When was the last time you experienced such phenomenal customer service that you went out and told all our friends on Facebook and your followers on Twitter? When was the last time you walked into a store to make a particular purchase and then walked out with more than you intended simply because the customer service was so welcoming and helpful that you knew you just had to have Y and Z when really you just wanted X?
I’m willing to bet that that happens so rarely that you can probably remember the last time it happened. In fact, I would argue that while Wall Street and Silicon Valley continue on their relentless path toward disruption, they’ve turned their back on the mere act of delivering a memorable customer experience.
Yes, the technology that first powered Amazon wowed its audience, but it was the fact that one can select from a massive library of books and then have them appear on your front door step a day or two later that was the clincher. Did Amazon’s first customers really care all that much about what lay under the engine that powered the site? Not really, unless they were also Amazon investors and VCs. Rather, they cared about the book-buying experience. That’s the disruption.
It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid
Too many companies are so focused on chasing the brass ring of disruption courtesy of the latest and greatest technology that they forget about the fundamentals. Google rolled out its much-anticipated Nexus phones in the fall of 2012 and then completely screwed up the rollout when its site crashed multiple times and eager fans (uhm, like me) had to keep refreshing their browsers to just put even just one phone in their shopping carts.
Going further back, Webvan tried to “disrupt” the online grocery delivery service during the height of the dot-com boom and found itself spiraling pretty quickly into bankruptcy and an ignominious place in history. By putting so much faith in what technology could do that that it didn’t even bother hiring executives with experience in the traditional grocery business, Webvan became the poster child of the excesses and lack of basic common sense of the dot-com era.
Sure, the whiz-bang technology they could buy with $1 billion was pretty darn impressive, but as this insightful article points out, Webvan’s founders and management team didn’t spend the money to improve customer service or the grocery shopping business. It burned through all that cash to revolutionize the logistics business. Two entirely different strategies, although Webvan’s executives clearly were conflating the two.
The biggest problem with the whole idea of “disrupting” an industry, though, is that the assumption is that technology is the key to that disruption. And I would argue that even in the case of Amazon, it wasn’t technology but the vision of Jeff Bezos to deliver what the customer needed, when he needed it. Technology facilitated it, but recognizing the customer’s need and acting on it was the ultimate disruption.
In many industries, simply improving customer service would be a true disruption. Going back to cars, for example, the auto industry keeps introducing sparkly new technology and amenities like backseat entertainment dashboards and rear-view cameras. All wonderful, all have their purpose. But imagine, for example, if the auto industry went back to the drawing board and introduced a selling model that transformed the traditionally adversarial car-buying process into a more collaborative one that met the needs of both the salesperson and the buyer. Imagine a transaction where neither party felt the need to “arm” themselves before they even meet, and where the end result is one in which the buyer walks away confident that the salesperson had her needs uppermost in his mind.
Pretty darn innovative and disruptive, right? And yet so pathetically out of reach. Rear-view cameras are easier to manufacture and develop entire ad campaigns around.
So yes, forgive me if the next time I hear or read the word disrupt, I roll my eyes and shrug my shoulders. A lot of amazing, highly profitable and much-loved companies exist and thrive without ever once using the word disruptive in their marketing pitches or press releases. Instead, they simply build great products or services and deliver them to their customers in a way that makes them stand out from the rest. Everyone has an example they can point to of a favorite company that does just that, from Apple in the electronics business to Starbucks in the coffee business. Yes, they rely heavily on technology, but it’s the customer experience that truly vaunts them above the competition.
What do you think? Do you agree that disruption should be the goal of every company, or do you think it’s overhyped? I’d love to get your feedback!