With the launch of Jean-Marie Dru’s new book The Ways to New – 15 paths to disruptive innovation, I think it is important to stop a minute and take a clear look into DISRUPTION.
In the wake of the digital transformation and uberization that are upon us, the term “Disruption” has become a buzzword that has been hackneyed and often misused. It is safe to say that it has lost part of its meaning, if not its entire point. Entrepreneurs and company leaders on nearly every market all jump on the occasion to qualify their work process as “disruptive,” or to introduce their innovation as a true “disruption” in order to underline or reinforce its novelty. Since Jean-Marie Dru’s first book Disruption – Overtuning conventions and shaking up the marketplace, many books published post-2000 have also used the term. In 2014 The New Yorker published an article entitled “Disruption has become the norm.” From Fukuyama’s The Great Disruption – Human nature and the reconstitution of social order in 2000 to James McQuivey’s Digital Disruption – Unleashing the next wave of innovation published in 2013 and Paul Gilding’s The Great Disruption – How the climate crisis will transform the global economy, there are now countless works that use the term “disruption” in very different ways. Consequently, I feel it is necessary to define some concepts and give the term back its meaning and its value.
A BIT OF HISTORY.
Up until 1990, the word “disruption,” common noun of the English language, was defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “Disturbance or problems which interrupt an event, activity or process.” It had a solely negative connotation, and was generally used by the media to describe disasters (« a major disruption has occurred »), as a synonym of a disorder generating grave problems. The term was used as a negative notion – a problem, not an opportunity. It was in 1992 that for the very first time, BDDP (which became TBWA in 1998) published an article in The Wall Street Journal presenting the word “Disruption” as a positive process of creative destruction. However, the notion of « creative destruction » is not new in it of itself.
In On the Genealogy of Morale, Friedrich Nietzsche argues “the magnitude of a progress is gauged by the greatness of the sacrifice that it requires,” much before the economist Joseph Schumpeter popularized in 1911 the notion of the economy of creative destruction, reminding us that the new does not come from the old; it appears next to the old and competes with it up until it replaces it. Jean-Marie Dru is without a doubt the first to have presented Disruption as a positive creative process, opposing breakthrough innovation to marginal or incremental innovations. Indeed, a new idea develops at the detriment of older or conventional ideas (the very definition of The Killer Idea, the title of my book published in 2011). In 1996, Harvard Professor Clayton M. Christensen published the book The Innovator’s Dilemma, in which he talks about « Disruptive Innovation » (and not ‘Disruption’ alone) to qualify breakthrough innovations. It is only later, thanks to the power of the Internet, that the term « Disruption » shall be employed systematically to talk about breakthrough innovations, market transformation, and as a synonym of ‘uberization.’ In order to avoid confusion, it is important to distinguish three different levels of comprehension of the term Disruption. First, there is Disruption as a creative methodology; then there is Disruption as an economic approach, and thirdly, Disruption as a sociological factor.
DISRUPTION® as a creative methodology.
Disruption is a patented term protected by TBWA (The Disruption® Company), for over 20 years now in many countries (including the United States and France). TBWA does not use this patent to prevent people from using the term, but to protect its creative methodology and avoid confusion with other methods. As Jean-Marie Dru wrote in his first book published in 1996, « Disruption designates both a break with the past and a jump forward from the present to the future. It is a discipline that consists in defying conventions and surpassing the status quo. A methodology that creates disorder in order to drive change. » While Disruption® was born for Communications, more specifically advertising and innovation strategy, the concept has boiled over into Design, Marketing, Business model innovation, and even further. The film below from 1991, depicting the high jumper Dick Fosbury is a perfect demonstration of a breakthrough innovation that forever transformed the sport.
Since 1992, several books have been published on Disruption® (Beyond Disruption in 2002; Disruption Stories in 2005 which focuses on TBWA’s major worldwide clients, Apple, Nissan, Adidas, PlayStation). In 2015, TBWA launched DISRUPTION LIVE® (Insight Mining – Audience Planning – Open Briefing), an update of the methodology which allows the real-time production of disruptive ideas for TBWA clients via e-listening on social media and the researching of pertinent Insights for brands.
Disruption as a creative methodology is – and always has been – the search for an idea that maximizes a brand’s difference and breaks conventions in order to attain a vision. In 1984, Apple broke the convention that was « Humans are slaves to machines and need to learn computer languages » by establishing a vision that machines were at the service of human creativity. This famous advertisement (below) was created by Chiat Day (today TBWA\Chiat\Day).
DISRUPTION as an economic approach (Creative Destruction and Disruptive Innovation).
As stated by Wikipedia, Creative Destruction describes the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” The concept, often referred to as Schumpeter’s Gale is associated with the economist Joseph Schumpeter, who popularized the term with the publication of his book Capitalism, Socialism, Democracy in 1942. The idea was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s thinking and Werne Sombart who coined the term for the first time. Theodore Levitt then reused it in Innovation and Marketing in 1969. In 1997, in the book that made him famous, The Innovator’s Dilemma – When new technologies cause great firms to fail, Harvard Professor Clayton M. Christensen opposed disruptive innovations to evolutionary innovations. He explains that in his sense, not all revolutionary innovations are disruptive. For Christensen, disruptive innovations are those that replace an existing market. Little by little, Clayton M. Christensen encloses disruptive innovations in restricted criteria, which led him to publish in December 2015 an article entitled “What is Disruptive Innovation?” in which he argues that UBER is, according to his definition, not a true disruption.
Deeming this vision of Disruptive Innovation too narrow, Jean-Marie Dru counter-argued Christensen’s theory in a response, which you can read here. In addition, in order to incite companies to use these methods of innovation that have created the success of these digital companies, Jean-Marie Dru has just released a book exclusively dedicated to innovation, offering 15 disruptive approaches to innovation illustrated by case studies of various brands including Burberry, Xiaomi, Lego, Tesla, Amazon, and more.
DISRUPTION as a sociological factor.
In May 2015, the management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company published No Ordinary Disruption, a book that exposes the biggest trends in health, energy and education. In this case, Disruption is used in a similar way to its original definition, a breakthrough that incarnates a societal change, for better or for worse, in a very large sense. The term is used similarly to Fukuyama’s use in The Great Disruption, who discusses the passage from the industrial era to the information age. For many since then, Disruption has become a synonym of Digital Disruption, this technological breakthrough that has impacted our society on every level.
As stated by Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence who also wrote the forward of Jean-Marie Dru’s book, the challenge facing every organization is “Disrupt, or be disrupted.”
Whether we use the term Disruption in a narrow or larger sense, the widespread popularization of the concept proves the need for a word that explains the nature of the transformation of the world around us, which has always been and will always be non-linear. A revolution always leads to something’s disappearance. Between the definition of Disruption that is too narrow and limits itself to start-ups (Uberization), and the much larger definition that describes the changes of the world, Disruption is better off defined in a simple and eminently useful manner, as Creative Breakthrough.