I’m not one to place much stock in business buzzwords. To me, they’re like fads, always changing to suit the needs of style, propaganda, and marketing.
But business loves buzzwords. It can’t help but glom onto something catchy or popular and use it until the next marketing or sales trend comes along. Everything is geared to invoke a response in you, the consumer.
Transparency, Bandwidth, Pivot, New Normal, Synergize, Bleeding Edge, Organic, Natural, Game Changer, Clickbait, Convert…
But one that remains particularly popular and overused lately, is the word innovation.
Companies strive to innovate in order to maintain their edge and competitive advantage. After all, this is about the bottom line, money.
The reason the word innovation is so obscure is that it is often used to define a company’s unique, creative, concepts and standout abilities.
And if we examine the definition of innovation, we can see that it refers primarily to product development; making changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.
Example definitions are:
- A change made to an existing product, idea, or field for the purpose of boosting sales.
- Always having to do with improvement on goods or services.
- A company’s failure to diversify and innovate competitively.
- Innovating newer products, while developing existing ones.
Again, this is all about products or product development aimed toward increasing sales.
According to ISO 56000:2020 (the International Organization for Standardization), they define innovation as “a new or changed entity realizing or redistributing value.”1 They further go on to say:
“An organization’s ability to innovate is recognized as a key factor for sustained growth, economic viability, increased well-being, and the development of society. The innovation capabilities of an organization include the ability to understand and respond to changing conditions of its context, to pursue new opportunities, and to leverage the knowledge and creativity of people within the organization in collaboration with external interested parties.”
They continue with more specific definitions:
3 Terms and definitions
3.1 General terms related to innovation
New or changed entity, realizing or redistributing value. Novelty and value are relative to, and determined by, the perception of the organization and relevant interested parties. An innovation can be a product, service, process, model, method, etc.
They go on to address radical innovation:
18.104.22.168 radical innovation:
Breakthrough innovation. Innovation with a high degree of change. Radical innovation is at the other end of the continuum to incremental innovation.
And lastly, they define Disruptive Innovation:
22.214.171.124 disruptive innovation:
Innovation initially addressing less demanding needs, displacing established offerings. Compared to established offerings, disruptive innovations are initially simpler offerings with lower performance, and they are generally more cost-effective, requiring fewer resources and offered at lower cost.
This is a bit contrary to how the majority of business uses the term disruptive innovation. However, in terms of disruption, they do go on to say, “Disruptive innovations can create new markets and value networks by addressing new users and deploying new business and value realization models.”
They conclude with, “Disruption occurs when a significant ratio of users or customers have adopted the innovation.”
Everything defined here is in regard to marketplace value. There’s no distinction between a disruption that changes how we live, think, and act, and what they call a disruption in terms of a product, service, or process.
Other companies have similar definitions that also refer to innovation as an improvement. A common theme in these definitions is a focus on newness, improvement, and the spread of ideas or technologies.
Innovation often takes place through the development of more-effective products, processes, services, and technologies.
Continuing this trend of buzz-wordiness within the corporate world, in 1995, Clayton Christensen wrote an article entitled, Disruptive Technologies with Joseph Bower2. Coining the term disruptive innovation, as a definition that defines marketplace value. His definition focused on the practice of developing market-leading companies, by illustrating ways that certain companies gained a competitive advantage, using examples like the disk drive industry, as illustrated in his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Again, they were focused on technologies that caused great companies to fail, with thoughts and strategies on how to prevent this from occurring.
The book was geared towards describing a new level of competitive advantage and radical new thought ideas in business. In his second book The Innovator’s DNA, they illustrate the differences between a competitive company and ones that bend the curve to gain even more advantage and dominance within their market.
But no one ever stopped to think about what disruption really is. They simply took it to mean radical new advantage, but that’s not really the case.
So, let’s examine what disruption is and see how different these two words disruption and innovation really are.
As we’ve examined, innovation pertains to incremental improvements.
What does this really mean? Well, let’s take a look at a simple to dissect concept and see how it changed through innovation.
If we take the lowly sponge, we know that it has been around for many years as a cleaning tool in the kitchen, and is sometimes used for other projects such as washing the car, cleaning tools, windows, siding, the bathtub, etc.
For years the sponge basically stayed the same, until some product marketing idealist thought of ways to improve the concept.
First, came the scouring sponge. Based upon the idea of steel wool, this was an effective, yet less harsh way to clean stubborn, baked-on food, allowing for the modern housewife (sorry for the label – their marketing, not mine) to spend less time in the kitchen.
At some point, it became obvious that having two different sponges was impractical, so, as a new marketing device, they created the dual sponge, soft on one side, and scouring on the other.
And whether these later additions were valuable to kitchens or just great marketing, they then added concepts like “Scrub Daddy” touted as “America’s Favorite Sponge Company” for the more serious dish, pots and pans cleaner.
This is the idea behind innovation – incremental improvements, in order to maintain its marketability, public desire, or competitive advantage, all for the ultimate purpose of monetary gain and profitability.
Disruption, on the other hand, is classified as something different. Now, before I continue, I will briefly address the fact that disruption also has negative connotations. For example, Donald J, Trump was very disruptive to the political system. And that is the last time I make reference to him.
But for the sake of understanding the distinction between innovation and disruption, disruption is a radically different concept or idea that dramatically alters the direction of its field or industry, sending things on an entirely new path.
An example is the invention of the lightbulb. Prior to this, we used kerosene and candles for lighting. Kerosene, at the time, was a very profitable business. The lightbulb changed everything. It gave us the ability to see farther and better, and work longer hours, eventually, with the development of automobiles and trucks, farmers could stay in the fields longer, and there are the obvious benefits it also offered; the lightbulb was not flammable, and the fumes weren’t toxic.
The reason the lightbulb is not an innovation and instead is considered a disruption, is that it was not an incremental improvement on how we used kerosene, instead, it completely eliminated the need for kerosene.
The second key to disruption, however, is one vital point. In order for something to become a disruption, society has to adopt and use it, and its inception then often changes the way we live, act, and think.
Another way to understand the difference between and innovation and a disruption, is that once the lightbulb came into existence, and was adopted into use, it then allowed for innovations to occur, better filaments, stronger glass, improved wiring, longer burning capability, and later on, when the LED bulb came about, more const efficient, even longer life, better on the eyes, cooler to the touch, and less demand for replacements.
In this way, we can see that innovation typically cannot exist without a disruption having first occurred.
Probably the most important differentiation between innovation and disruption is in the reasoning behind their creation.
Since we now know that an innovation is typically and most likely for incremental improvement of an existing concept or idea, then its development is predicated on three factors. It is typically created for monetary gain, and in order to achieve this, it must be looked at in a convergent process. It also needs to be an improvement on the existing concept, meaning that the unnecessary aspects need to be improved or removed completely, therefore, it must offer a new, unique, or additional benefit from its predecessor, and, inevitably, there must be an end product to offer or sell. It continues to funnel down the improvement process until the best outcome is ultimately achieved. And lastly, we now know that until a disruption (sometimes referred to as a new invention) happens, an innovation won’t ensue.
A disruption, however, flows in a completely different direction. As opposed to its convergent counterpart, the disruption is often of divergent origin. At its onset, the discovery of an idea or concept can initially go in many directions, open to many possibilities, and not ruling out any ideas or thoughts, just yet. In fact, the creator of a disruption doesn’t initially know if his or her idea will lead anywhere, be useful, or eventually even be adopted into practice.
A Disruptor’s thinking, therefore, remains open, explorative, often adventurous, imaginative, and playful. It draws no conclusions, enabling the Disruptor to remain expansive in the creative process
Take Albert Einstein’s development of his theory of relativity. Initially, his math and geometry were not the best to soundly convey his theories, so instead, he used imagery and imagination to work out his concepts and ideas.
Another example of a disruption that had no initial grounding was Steve Wozniak’s concept of the personal computer. In the beginning, he was merely in an experimental, playful mode of understanding what he had developed. It was fun for him to figure out how to make the keys type the words on the screen. It reacted instantly to whatever keys Wozniak pressed. “I typed a few keys on the keyboard and I was shocked!” He also figured out how to make the monitor display color graphics using only a low-end HP 6502 processor he bought for $20. He himself was a hobbyist and wanted to share his creation with other hobbyists.4
And once he got it working successfully, all he wanted was to offer the concept to the Homebrew club for free. It was Steve Jobs, the visionary, who inevitably saw its dominating future and radical potential.
Wozniak even once said,
“My dream was actually just to have a computer someday. If I’d imagined that it meant starting a company to sell them, I probably would have avoided the whole thing.”
And again, just like every other disruption, until it was accepted and adopted into societal use, it was still not a disruption.
There are many disruptive ideas that did not make the Disruptor a ton of money, including Michael Faraday’s discovery of electromagnetism. There is also Marie Curie’s discovery of radium and polonium, and her huge contribution to finding treatments for cancer. First to win two Nobel Prizes, she spent her winnings by pouring it into further research. For her, money wasn’t an incentive. She even wanted to donate her two Nobel medals to be melted down and used towards the war effort.
And this leads us to the third major distinction between an innovation and a disruption. Historically speaking, when a disruption is successful, it has ten times the longevity of an innovation, ten times the profitability, and it ultimately benefits more people.
Gasoline is still around, as are electricity, computers, radio, television, automobiles, airplanes, photography, radiology, etc. And they’re more profitable simply for the fact that they last longer and continue to be in demand.
The reason they benefit more people is that while an innovation serves the business that developed it and the consumer who uses it, a disruption creates even more jobs and opportunities simply for the fact that they improve the way we live or take us in a new direction, as exampled by the Internet and the World Wide Web.
It’s hard to argue that JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series changed the way we look at the children’s book market. She opened new doors of both acceptance and discovery. But it also went farther than any of its predecessors.
It branched out into new areas of film, entertainment, and adventure. It infused new energy into the book publishing business. By creating movies, theme parks, rides, and merchandise based upon this unique concept, the Harry Potter series developed into a multi-billion-dollar industry, employing thousands of people. New jobs were established in technology, set design, computer animation, graphic techniques, photography, and so much more. New product ideas were developed, including games, clothing, fan clubs, and other theme-based merchandise. And it is not going away any time soon. But, once that disruption happened, it gave way for innovation to then continue the journey.
And the same goes for Stan Lee’s creations. As an eight-dollar-a-week comic book writer/creator who had no idea of the future other than creating futuristic fantasy-based icons that endure the test of time, Lee inadvertently had created a multi-billion-dollar industry with the inception of his beloved and celebrated heroes. And again, this too isn’t going away any time soon. But it will take innovation to keep it fresh, alive, and profitably growing.
Therefore, we can say that while a disruption creates new opportunities, development, and thinking, innovation is a necessary component to keep it viable.
The idea behind disruption is not monetary, but instead, it’s kind of like pulling at a thread. Something made the disruptor curious enough to pursue an idea that no one else at the time was even considering, and without knowing which direction it would take him or her, creating a new way to think, act, and live, as exampled by Hedy Lamarr’s pursuit of frequency hopping, and Crick and Watson’s discovery of the DNA Double Helix (though I personally attribute a big portion of their discovery to Rosalind Franklin).
Disruption doesn’t consciously look for an endgame, but instead, the adventure to see where it leads. The curious exploration is often the driver of the Disruptor, whose focus and motivation is to discover and understand. He or she is trying to figure out how and why something is with no expectations of where it will lead. Kind of like Alice going down the rabbit hole, or Neo venturing into the Matrix.
If we look at examples of Disruptors like Henry Ford and Preston Tucker, their disruptions came from their unique perspectives.
It’s believed that where Henry Ford disrupted the auto industry was through the inception of the assembly line. But really, that was just an innovation of an existing concept for the meat packing industry. He just improved upon the model. Where his real disruption occurred was in making his automobiles for the ‘everyman.’ Cars were no longer just for the rich or affluent. By making affordable cars, he allowed everyone better opportunities for prospects of work, travel, and better quality of life.
Preston Tucker’s concept of the Tucker automobile, called “The car of the Future,” focused on the future of functionality and safety. Again, not an innovation, his thinking, instead, offered radical concepts in safety that completely changed the direction of how cars were built. Without his disruptive ideas, we might still be driving unsafe vehicles whose only purpose is to make the automobile industry more profitable.
What Can We Learn from the Distinction Between These Two Formidable Concepts?
Since I do not teach, nor practice innovation, I will instead show you the framework for disruptive discovery. Hopefully, this will provide you with tools that may at first be unfamiliar, but that you will find both highly useful while simultaneously not hard to acquire.
1: Spark. Often what sets a Disruptor on their path is that something (or someone) sparked a curious need to dig deeper and discover more. Where does one find his spark? It typically springs from being introduced to something new or unusual, piquing their curiosity, which suddenly causes them to want to learn more. Witnessing a shooting star for the very first time, seeing an artist at work, marveling at the unique architecture of a building, seeing a magic show, or a scientific experiment, or being inspired by someone’s job, idea, or perspective. Traveling, seeing new places, meeting new people, and experiencing new cultures is often a way to spark one’s interests. Go travel. Branch out beyond your comfort zone, and see what’s out there, or continue to read a variety of genres and see what inspires or influences your thinking. Children’s adventure stories, fiction, and science fiction are great starting tools, but even someone’s memoir or biography can spark a new idea or new line of thinking.
2: Don’t Draw Conclusions. This might be a challenge in the beginning, but once you can master this technique, you will find that your thinking increases and magnifies exponentially. The technique is simply to not seek answers, but instead, to remain open to the discovery process. Don’t look for a resolution or how to solve a problem. That’s rational thinking. What you want is to train and expand your intuitive mindset to search in many directions for new opportunities and ideas. We are programmed by conditioning to look for conclusions as a way to keep a logical and ordered mind. But if you think about it, art, music, design, and even invention and investigation are not logical and orderly. They are initially open and explorative. By keeping your options of discovery open-ended, you’ll force your mind to look for new ways to see the world. Think MC Escher, Salvador Dali, J.R.R. Tolkien, or even Lewis Carroll as examples.
3: Pretend and Fantasize. I’ve said this before, but adults are determined to adhere to logic and rational thought. Most feel that fantastical imagination is a waste of time that adds no value or purpose. I wholeheartedly disagree. Almost every disruption came from someone’s ability to fantasize. For those of you still rooted in rational thought, another way to state this is to imagine. Creativity comes from imagination. Imagination comes from one’s ability to stretch reality by… fantasizing. Fantasy flourishes from one’s ability to pretend. Pretending is all about imagination. And the circle continues. No part of this lives within the realm of rational thinking. Einstein, da Vinci, Faraday, Tesla, Jobs, Musk, Bezos, and many other Disruptors use imagination and their ability to fantasize in order to create and develop their ideas and concepts. Some are even great at using imagery to convey or work out their ideas. Don’t sell yourself short. Allow yourself permission to not be so grounded in a boring, logical, rational, adult-centric world. Have some fun and see where your mind takes you.
4: Connecting Unlikely Dots. Learning to connect unlikely things is another area that Disruptors excel at. They have the ability to piece together things that don’t have an obvious purpose or place, just yet. The ability to see unlikely connections requires one to be open to how those things could come together. It’s not always obvious, but eventually, it makes sense.
Physician Etienne Stephane Tarnier’s idea of the human incubator, taken from the existing concept of the chicken incubator, Swiss engineer George de Mestral’s discovery of the common burr inspired his idea of Velcro, Henry Ford’s concept for streamlining the production of his automobile by borrowing from a concept he saw by Philip Danforth Armour, who created a moving assembly line for the meat-packing industry, or Garrett Camp’s idea of personalizing and enhancing the experience of cab rides by creating UberCab, making the system even more seamless through the app. And there is even Airbnb, which completely changed the concept of travel lodging.
The idea is simple; unlogic the logical. This requires one to acquire a MacGyver-mindset when looking at things. You most likely already have done this when the screw to your eyeglasses got lost and you used a paperclip to fix them. Or you used a bunch of folded napkins to keep your table from wobbling. Or how someone figured out the necessity of creating a holder for smartphones while driving. Or using a nearby coffee cup to keep the window from constantly slamming shut. We MacGyver things all the time. You just have to put your creative hat on and allow your mind to wander.
5: Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously. This is borrowed from the thinking of Dr. Wayne Dyer, who said, “Always practice rule #6. Rule #6 is; don’t take yourself too seriously. And by the way, there are no rules 1-5.” He meant this as a way to live a life of peace and happiness in a chaotic world of noise and constant demand for one’s attention. But I’d like to build upon this great idea. By not taking yourself too seriously, you allow for a more playful, optimistic outlook on everything you do. We know that Albert Einstein had a playful, whimsical outlook, and he wasn’t alone. Many creative people see the world in a ‘not too serious way, including artists, comedians, and writers. Look at the many humorous or quirky ways these individuals see life. Robin Williams is a great example of how one can view the world.
When you allow yourself the freedom to be less serious about life, you find that having less stress opens up and expands creative thought. Similar to quieting one’s ego, when you take the stress off yourself, when you allow yourself permission to just be, you invite your creative mind to flourish. Because creativity is open, when you look at life as an opportunity and not an obligation, you find new and unique ways to see it, live it, and explore it. So, practice rule #6 often. You may surprise yourself.
Applying these techniques, you’ll find that the disruptive mindset is not grounded in absolutes or empirical conclusions and therefore it requires and promotes a more divergent, open style of thinking and looking at the world. It’s often been said that we find our missing car keys when we take our mind off looking for them. The same goes for disruptive thinking. When you aren’t specifically seeking a conclusion, when you remain open to exploration, you find new areas of thought and discovery. Have fun in the process and the process will reward you with an expanded style of thinking.
3: Founders at work: Stories of startups’ early days. Livingston, J. (2008), Berkeley, Calif: Apress.