Back during the Dotcom Boom, yours truly was just another pimple faced, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed tech whiz kid, knee-deep in trying to navigate the glittery promises of the internet age. Everyone was raving about disruption – it was like the newest street drug, with everyone wanting a piece. And me? Well, I was right there with them, sniffing out and trying to understand the potential for radical change.

But here’s the thing – I had disruption all wrong. I equated it with chaos and pandemonium, just shattering the old to make way for the new. I was all for it, the digital cowboy riding high on the waves of tech transformation. But then, things started to crash, and oh boy, did they burn!

The graveyard of startups from that era is a testament to the brutal reality check we all faced. We’d all been so eager to ‘disrupt’, but in the aftermath, it became clear that much of the so-called disruption was more about causing disorder than truly innovating. The tough pill to swallow? Most of us were not really disruptors; we were just troublemakers in fancy tech disguise.

The real kick in the pants came when I realized what disruptive innovation truly was. It wasn’t about just stirring up chaos or making noise for the sake of it. Nah, it was about creating value, often in the most overlooked areas. The real disruptors were those who didn’t just kick up dust, but those who built new paths, led the way to untapped markets, and provided solutions where no one else bothered to look.

The journey from that painful realization to today’s understanding was a rough one, folks. But hey, without those facepalm moments, I wouldn’t be here sharing this wisdom with you. So, let’s dive into this disruption malarkey and clear up the confusion once and for all.

Defining Disruption: Clearing Up the Confusion

So, let’s start with the basics: What the hell is disruptive innovation anyway? Well, it’s not just about slapping a fresh coat of tech on an old idea or shaking things up for the fun of it. It’s a specific kind of innovation that alters the way we think, behave, do business, learn, and go about our days.

The ‘classic’ definition of disruption was coined by Clayton M. Christensen, a chap who had his head screwed on right. He described disruptive innovation as a process where a smaller company, often with fewer resources, challenges established businesses by targeting overlooked customers with a novel but modest offering. Over time, these innovators gradually move upmarket, eventually disrupting the incumbents.

You see, disruption isn’t about making a big bang right out of the gate; it’s more like a slow burn, steadily chipping away at the status quo until, before you know it, the landscape’s transformed.

Now, this is where most folks trip up. Not every new technology or business model is disruptive. Yep, you heard me right. Just ’cause it’s shiny and new doesn’t mean it’s disruptive.

Take Uber, for example. Everyone loves to hail Uber as the poster child of disruption, but does it really fit the mold? Hell no! Sure, Uber revolutionized the ride-hailing industry, but it didn’t start by serving overlooked customers with a modest offering. They went straight for the jugular of the taxi industry, using the same tech-based platform but offering a cleaner, quicker, and more efficient service. They were definitely innovative, but not ‘disruptive’ in the classic sense.

So, why’s this important? Because the term ‘disruptive’ isn’t just some buzzword you can throw around willy-nilly. It’s a precise term, with a specific meaning. When we start labeling every innovation as ‘disruptive’, we dilute the term’s meaning, and we risk missing out on understanding the real forces at play.

So, next time you hear someone calling a new tech or startup ‘disruptive’, take it with a pinch of salt. Ask yourself: Is this really targeting an overlooked segment? Is it starting small and planning to move upmarket? Is it truly disruptive, or just a solid, sustaining innovation? If we’re gonna talk the talk about disruption, we better damn well walk the walk!

The Missteps: Common Mistakes in Applying Disruption Theory

Alright, so now that we’ve cleared up what disruptive innovation is (and what it isn’t), let’s talk about where people tend to screw up when it comes to applying this theory.

First up is the danger of failing to view disruption as a gradual process. Too many folks see disruption as a sudden, shocking event, like a thunderbolt from the blue. But the truth is, disruption is more like a slow, creeping vine. It starts small, often barely noticeable, but over time, it spreads, grows, and eventually takes over the whole damn garden.

Ignoring the slow build of disruption can lead to significant threats. Trust me, I’ve been there. A while back, I was heading up a successful venture. We were the big dogs, the industry leaders. And then, along came this tiny startup, serving a customer base we’d always dismissed as unimportant. They were barely a blip on our radar, but while we were sleeping on our laurels, they were slowly chipping away at our market. By the time we realized the threat, it was too late – they’d grown into a formidable competitor, and we were left eating their dust.

Another common blunder is blindly accepting the “Disrupt or be disrupted” mantra. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s vital to stay innovative and adaptive, but it’s just as crucial to remember your core business – the thing that brought you to the party in the first place.

Too often, established businesses get so caught up in trying to fend off disruption that they forget to nurture their main bread and butter. They throw resources at new, untested ventures, trying to ‘disrupt’ themselves before anyone else does. But in the process, they risk destabilizing their existing successful operations.

It’s like trying to juggle flaming torches while you’re standing on a tightrope – you’re so focused on not getting burned that you forget to keep your balance. The result? You end up getting burned AND falling off the tightrope.

So remember, while it’s essential to keep an eye out for potential disruptors, it’s equally important to keep doing what you do best. Keep serving your existing customers, keep improving your products, and keep your brand strong. Disruption is important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Don’t lose sight of your core strengths in the pursuit of the new and shiny.

The Evolution & Future of Disruption Theory

Just like everything else in life, disruption theory isn’t a static concept frozen in time. Oh no, it’s a living, breathing idea that evolves and grows. But here’s the rub – it’s not a catch-all, one-size-fits-all solution to every business problem. You can’t just slap a ‘disruption’ label on a situation and expect it to magically work out.

The theory has its limitations, folks. It doesn’t always apply to every industry or every company. There are instances where disruption theory falls short. Think about industries where regulations and compliance play a major role or where consumer behaviors are deeply ingrained and resistant to change. You can’t always disrupt your way out of these challenges. Sometimes, you need a different playbook.

But that’s not to say we should toss disruption theory out the window – far from it. It’s still a powerful tool that can provide tremendous insight into market dynamics. And the beauty of it is, its explanatory and predictive powers can only improve with ongoing research and understanding.

I’m excited about where disruption theory is headed. As we refine our understanding of it, I believe we’re going to see an even more nuanced and effective approach to innovation. We’ll get better at identifying potential disruptors earlier, and we’ll become more adept at leveraging disruption to create lasting value.

The future of disruption isn’t about chaos and upheaval; it’s about finding those overlooked opportunities, those untapped markets, and those unmet needs – and fulfilling them in a way that creates real, tangible value for customers. That’s where the true power of disruption lies.

So, what’s my takeaway here? Don’t get seduced by the hype of disruption. Understand what it is, what it isn’t, and where it works best. Use it as one tool in your toolbox, not as a hammer to pound every nail. And above all, keep an eye on the future – because disruption is a journey, not a destination.


So, let’s wrap this up. I know, I know, we’ve been on quite a ride. But let’s take a sec to distill all this down to a few key takeaways.

Firstly, disruptive innovation isn’t about creating chaos or pulling the rug out from under your competitors. Nah, it’s about recognizing overlooked opportunities and serving them in a way that creates real value. It’s not about the quick and easy win, but the slow and steady climb to success.

Secondly, don’t go around calling everything that’s new and shiny ‘disruptive.’ It’s not, and by misusing the term, you’re just adding to the confusion. Let’s give ‘disruptive’ its due respect, alright?

Thirdly, don’t get so caught up in trying to disrupt that you lose sight of what made your business successful in the first place. Yeah, keep an eye out for potential disruptors, but don’t forget to nurture your core business.

And finally, remember that disruption theory isn’t a magic bullet. It has its limitations and it won’t be the right fit for every situation. But it’s evolving, and its potential for the future is pretty damn exciting.

So, there you have it. My two cents on the misunderstood world of disruptive innovation. I hope it’s given you a fresh perspective and challenged some of your preconceived notions. Because at the end of the day, that’s what being disruptive is all about, right? Challenging the status quo and forging a new path.

And as you go out into the world to disrupt some sh*t, remember this: don’t just be a bull in a china shop. Be the right kind of bull. The kind that’s deliberate, discerning, and hell-bent on creating value where no one else thought to look.

About the Author: Geoffrey Byers
Geoffrey is one of the world's foremost Designers. He is also a Serial Entrepreneur, Author, Speaker, and Mad Scientist. Hypothesis-Driven experimentation is his love language.