innovation continuumIn email conversations yesterday with my Innovation Engine co-conspirator Richard Hale, he noted that increasingly he’s seeing the word “disruption” being used by the people that he is working with.

Maybe you should do a blog on the theme of disruptive/disruption

he said.

Well, here goes.

For me, this is all about a continuum of change, as illustrated above in my trusty Moleskine. At one end of innovation you have incremental change that is about improving the way in which you do things. Whilst continuous improvement is common currency these days, it’s not to be forgotten that it’s only really in the past 60 years that it has come to be so ubiquitous a concept. And there are a few industries that seem to plod on as if nothing needs to change.

Step-change innovation is about doing new things. This is much harder because, as I’ve suggested in the past, the nature of corporates is in many ways to protect from things that might damage them, and change can be seen in that way. Corporate stems from the Latin “corpus” – the body – and corporates tend to have a metaphorical immune system through bureaucratic structure and culture that reacts to prevent change.

There are a number of ways in which a company might try to innovate, and the challenge is usually not in coming up with ideas, but in the execution to actually make them happen.

And if you think it’s hard to do new things that are adjacent activities to what you currently do, it’s really hard to do new things that actually erode or destroy the value of the bulk of what you do today. That’s my definition of disruption.

Xerox’s PARC is a case study in how hard this can be. Through the 70s and 80s the boffins at PARC invented or made significant steps towards laser printing, ethernet, WYSIWYG computing and object-oriented programming. It’s well documented how Steve Jobs and others at Apple were “inspired” by ideas seen at PARC to go on to create the Lisa and the Macintosh. Meanwhile Xerox plodded along as a photocopier company, unable to see how to bring anything to market that didn’t look like a photocopier.

(That’s a bit of an abridged history. For more you could check out this.)

The thing is that, particularly for a US publicly-listed company, the opportunity to become self-cannibalistic which is at the core of disruptive activity is next to impossible. If your company is turning good revenue you need by law to protect that – a problem (in my opinion) facing the legacy giants of technology like Microsoft and Oracle. It’s why Michael Dell turned his company private again… Usually the attempts at disruption come as the body corporate is twitching, snatching it’s very last breaths.

At the end of the day, Innovation, Disruption… it’s all just words.

At the core, do you want to do things better, do you want to do new things, or do you want to do things that will make you current things pretty pointless?

The further you go down that continuum (if you are a bigger organisation) the more challenges you will be setting yourself.


One thought on “Innovate or disrupt?

  1. Matt,
    I really like your definition and drawing of disruption. It’s so simple and works with just about anything. As technological change accelerates exponentially, the whole topic of disruption is becoming even more part of every day conversation.
    Jim Kraimer

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