Disruption in business is a heady concept (and a clunky couple of words). When you disrupt something, you change the predicted outcome. You create a form of chaos. And because humans tend to dislike commotion, disruption can be jarring. Think Blockbuster to Netflix. Flip phone to iPhone. Networking event to LinkedIn.
The concept of innovative disruption took hold in the tech world but has gone mainstream, spreading from software to social media to hoodies to gardening shoes. Hell, these days it's not uncommon for cupcake bakers to call themselves disruptive. I mean, it's still a cupcake, man, and it's not disruptive to anything other than one's waistline.
If you are even remotely relevant, you are said to be "disrupting" an industry. It has become a battle cry, with CEOs across the land informing us that their companies are forever changing industries and business models--even history itself. The truth is, we usually hear this in speeches and interviews but rarely see evidence of it in actual practice. Because change is scary, and disruption is the ultimate form of change.
True disruption is breathtaking. One of the most unexpected ideas came in 1995, when Norway, Russia, Ukraine and the U.S. got together to change the way satellites were launched into space. Yes, you heard it right--companies from four nations came together to disrupt the commercial space industry. They geeked out under the watchful eye of Boeing to form Sea Launch, a semi-submersible, refurbished oil platform that was navigable and could accommodate equatorial launches (the sweet spot for putting satellites into space). Essentially, you could drive the thing and launch the satellite from the equator. Sort of like the Foursquare of space launch.
The concept was groundbreaking. But there were problems. After a string of successful launches, there was a failure--well, an explosion, really. It was a very, very expensive mistake. (Satellites are a tad more expensive than cupcakes.) The company went bankrupt, then emerged from bankruptcy. There was another failed launch early this year. But Sea Launch vows to keep trying. And no matter what happens, it doesn't change the fact that this was a radical idea that forever altered the course of a staid industry whose members had long believed that there was only one way of doing things.
When engaged in disruption, you are actually interrupting mathematical equations and challenging reason and popular thought. When you disrupt, you are rebelling and flying in the face of reason. And who doesn't want to be a rebel?
In business, some people are better rebels than others. Some are James Dean; most aren't. And that's OK. Because disruption may be sexy, but it's not always necessary. Staying true to your own mission is as important as changing someone else's. If you surprise and delight your customers, that may be the only disruption you need.
Amy C. Cosper,
Editor in chief
Follow me on Twitter, @EntMagazineAmy