Foster’s 1986 book, Innovation: The Attacker’s Advantage, described this phenomenon, offered tips for surviving it (just being aware of the possibility of a technological shift was the first step), and predicted that there was much more to come as giant waves of innovation in electronics, software, and biotechnology buffeted the economy. “The Age of Discontinuity,” Foster called it, borrowing the line from the management guru Peter Drucker.
The book did well, but the expression didn’t stick. “I will forever rue the day I didn’t call it ‘disruption,’ ” Foster now says. That was left instead to Clayton Christensen, a consultant and an entrepreneur who headed to Harvard Business School for a mid-career doctorate in 1989 and started teaching there three years later. For his dissertation,
Christensen studied technological shifts in the computer-disk-drive industry and began to refine his observations—which were quite similar to what Foster had seen in other industries—into an academic theory of “disruptive innovation.”
Starting with a 1995 article for the Harvard Business Review and then the 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma,
Christensen began to hammer the phrase into the business world’s collective consciousness.
It was the rise of the Internet that really gave the concept wings—in part by so clearly illustrating not only the risks disruption poses but the opportunities it affords. And after a bit of backtracking at the bottom of the dot-com bust, the belief that digital disruption stalks the Earth, threatening all before it, has only gained in adherents. Nowadays every corporate executive wants to disrupt; the word has become a mark of forward-thinking decisiveness—though it is sometimes attached to strategies that are more about cost-cutting than game-changing. And in Silicon Valley, belief in disruption has taken on a near religious tinge. All that disrupts is good; all that stands in disruption’s way (such as, say, San Francisco taxi companies or metropolitan daily newspapers) deserves to perish.
It’s a lot to put on a word that once just meant “to break apart,” and not surprisingly, the disruption-promotion industry has been experiencing a backlash. An app is now available for the Firefox and Chrome browsers, for example, that replaces every mention of the word disrupt with bullshit. And in June, the Harvard historian Jill Lepore caused a mini-sensation with a long and uncharacteristically ill-tempered essay in The New Yorker that not only decried the overuse of the word but took Christensen to task for cherry-picking case studies to buttress a theory that she said really wasn’t all that good at predicting anything. There was little evidence, Lepore argued, that disruptive upstarts, or companies that disrupted themselves, consistently won out. Christensen responded, in a long and uncharacteristically ill-tempered interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, that Lepore had been doing the cherry-picking by ignoring most of his work since 1997.