June 2014
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Day June 25, 2014

The Disruption FAQ

Q1. What is disruption?

Disruption happens when the strong are defeated by the weak. More precisely it’s when those with unconstrained access to resources have them taken away by those with minimal or no resources. It’s a phenomenon that is in contrast to sustaining competition where the strong get stronger.

Q2. How can disruption happen? Don’t the strong always have an advantage over the weak?

The strong can be defeated when the fight is unfair. More precisely, “strength” is only a perception based on convention or historic precedent. The entrant may be weak in resources but may be strong in a way that is not seen as conventionally useful or valuable such as agility or a willingness to learn.

Q3. What makes a fight unfair?

A fight is unfair if the opponents fight according to different rules. This is also called asymmetric competition. Asymmetry is an important concept in game theory, economics and military science.

Q4: Is there a way to know disruption is about to happen?

Disruption theory is an attempt to reliably identify winning challenges. It includes a method of analysis of “the setting” of the fight and “the weighing” of the fighters. In other words, it measures whether the challenger is sufficiently asymmetric and whether the incumbent is flexible enough in their likely response. If there is insufficient asymmetry the theory would suggest the challenger will lose, and vice versa.

Q5: How often does it happen?

In some industries it happens quickly and in some industries slowly and in some never at all. Determining the cause of the rate of disruption is an important research topic. We can hypothesize that industries which show frequent disruption also show a high degree of wealth creation. The inverse is also true: industries that don’t get disrupted don’t create much wealth.

Q6. How do incumbents react to asymmetric challenges?

This quote (mistakenly attributed to Gandhi) describes it best: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” The main test of asymmetry is to ask whether a challenger’s entry is ignored (or welcomed) by the incumbents. Most asymmetric challenges are not taken seriously because they initially benefit the incumbent. The side-effect is that it lulls them into a sense of security resulting in a lack of response. Challengers have the child-like advantage of rapid growth and learning while incumbents are encumbered by their size and lack of flexibility.

Q7: Why don’t challengers respond in kind?

Mainly because they don’t feel that they need to. The newcomer is either not seen as a threat or welcomed because the customers they obtain that are not seen as valuable. In some cases the business model of the entrant is contrary to that of the incumbent. In other words, the challenger makes money in a way that would cause the incumbent to lose money. Often the challenger is actually invisible because she misdirects attention. They may be seen as competing in one market with a certain set of competitors but their effect is in another market which never had to deal with a challenger.

Q8: If there are different ways disruption can be observed, doesn’t that mean there are different types of disruptions?

Yes. When a competitor challenges with a cheaper product that seems to perform poorly and has low margins and the incumbent accepts the entry because it allows them to concentrate on more profitable customers then this is called a “low-end disruption”. Here the asymmetry is in cost structure. The entrant has lower costs and accepts lower profit margins and may “make money” in new or different ways.

When a competitor misdirects attention by selling a product that draws usage from existing customers and adds non-consuming new customers because it enables new uses, then the incumbent feels no pain from the entry because they don’t sense a reduction in customers. We call this a “new market disruption“. The challenger gains a foothold and grows/evolves, eventually capturing customers exclusively. Here the asymmetry is in the basis of competition and measurement of “performance”. The new product does not actually do the same thing as the incumbent product or does a subset of valuable tasks poorly while excelling at menial tasks. The entrant may be highly profitable but they are not taking profits away from incumbents because they “grow the pie”, capturing value by fulfilling unmet needs.

Disruption can also happen to professions and institutions when less skilled individuals are enabled to perform complex jobs or when professionals can establish good enough services that used to take institutional support. This is called professional services disruption.

Technological change is often (but not always) the core enabler in creating disruptions. The analogy is that technology is a weapon that allows asymmetric combat but the combatant is the disruptor, not the weapon[1].

Q9: It sounds like the trick to spotting disruption is in perceiving when the fight becomes “unfair” and an outsider advantage is gained. Does the theory make this easy?

It makes it possible but not easy. Understanding when a basis of competition changes and where competition is shifting is still very difficult. It is notoriously difficult to sense when it’s happening to you because you are working toward a strategy with assumptions that have been tested and proven to be correct. In other words, you, your colleagues, your competitors and everyone you’ve ever met knows the rules of the fight. Insider status makes you an expert, your knowledge is far beyond a lay person’s and you have a track record of winning. Hubris and pride makes it difficult to accept a challenge from an ignorant outsider.

Furthermore, an outside analyst who is not suffering from these psychological weaknesses may not have the means to measure change because they don’t have access to market metrics. So you can’t typically hire a consultant to help you spot it. This is where the theory helps. If you are a practitioner then you can use the theory as a lens to see the patterns in the operating data.

The proper application of the theory requires domain knowledge or deep reading of weak signals. It’s best employed by incumbent operating managers analyzing their own industry. It’s a tool that can be used to overcome the perception of incumbent invulnerability. It is not a tool that can be used by armchair generals. They can pick up the lens but, not having any data to look at, they have have no patterns to recognize. (This last point is disputed. See comment.)

By the way, entrants don’t benefit much from it either because they act disruptively by instinct. They enjoy the freedom of having nothing to lose.

Q10: How long does this take? Isn’t a shift in competition natural over a few decades?

The speed of disruption is changing rapidly. It used to take decades but now it takes years and in some software industries it could be happening in less than one year. When it used to take decades it did not matter much because the “victims” of a disruption usually could spend a career in the firm being disrupted and would not have to adjust their behavior or assumptions. The consequences would have been felt by future generations. The rate of disruption today is so rapid that many careers and lives and families are having to deal with the consequences, sometimes more than once. Estimating the acceleration and scope of disruptive change is a great research topic.

Q11: Is the theory complete? Can’t we just write an app for it?

It’s not complete. It cannot be encoded as a deterministic algorithm. It’s not even likely that expert systems or neural networks or machine learning can help. This is because perception of change in competition is a skill informed as much by intuition as by data and rules. If the theory is developed further, through a process of theory building, then it might become an app.

Q12: If the theory is not complete, then isn’t it useless?

A theory is not useless if it’s imprecise or difficult to use. Data that would make conclusions precise is often missing or unavailable. The theory relies on weak signals and explains what used to be unexplainable. Many sciences developed from empirical analysis similar to where we are with disruption theory. Theories benefit from development.

Q13: Is the theory being developed further?

Yes. There is a process for theory building which has been ongoing for over a decade where many researchers, students of disruption and practitioners are contributing.

Q14: Can the theory be applied outside of business competition?

Yes, institutions can be disrupted as can individuals. Possibly even economies and states. This is because a growing technological base and communications enable asymmetries of ever-greater scope and speed. The research needed to establish how this happens is under way. However it’s important to know the limits of the phenomenon. Incumbents are getting wiser as they wield the theory and some “settings” show resistance to change and thus prohibit technological cores to be utilized disruptively. The study of these anomalies is essential to the process of theory building.

Q15: Is disruption a force of nature? Has it always existed? Will it never end?

Oral traditions suggest that people have been aware of disruptive forces for all of history. We feel it in the school playground and in many personal relationships. It’s in the Bible and the classics that predate it. It’s visible in all cultures. Disruption theory as applied to business and government is only an extension of this causal individual behavior into complex systems. It’s possible that awareness of it might cause the behavior to change, or, put another way, that if you observe and understand the phenomenon, that knowledge could cause it to stop happening. But the systems involved are vast and learning curves are long. Enlightenment may take a few lifespans.


Here are questions which have been added based on reader feedback. Please feel free to suggest others in the comments.

Q16: Isn’t Disruption just evolution of business models?

Business models evolve, but if the evolution sustains an existing incumbent then it’s not a disruption. If an evolution is  adopted by an entrant who then proceeds to strip the assets and profits from an incumbent then it’s a disruptive change. The key question is why do some changes get adopted and not others.

Q18: What have been the major improvements in the theory since its introduction in 1997’s The Innovator’s Dilemma?

From Clay Christensen’s work alone: New Market Disruptions, Professional Disruption, Value Chain Evolution Theory, Jobs to be Done Theory. The Innovator’s Solution including how to respond with autonomous self-disruption, the role of acquisitions, the study of Healthcare and Education as targets of (and anomalies to) disruptive change. The process of theory building. The Capitalist’s Dilemma and how economies create incentives and disincentives to disruptive innovations.  Many other contributions from researchers too numerous to cite here.

Q19: What industries cannot be disrupted

Industries which experience no disruptions are “anomalous” in that the theory suggests that technological progress forces change and technologies have proliferated in almost all industries..  Industries or institutions which have remained largely undisrupted include Energy, Education, Government, Healthcare, Airlines and Hotels. The study of these anomalies continues and explanations identify conditions that prevent growth. Dependencies on regulation, infrastructure, and absence of technological core enablers caused some of the atrophy to date. However signals of change are appearing in all these industries and paths to disruption are clearly possible.

Q20: How is it possible that companies which were claimed to be disrupted are still around and some which are claimed to be disruptors have vanished?

Being disrupted does not mean ceasing to exist. Being disrupted is a loss of a specific encounter, but not necessarily a terminal loss. Being a disruptor is a win in a specific encounter and not a guarantee of immortality. Indeed many disruptors come to be disrupted and the theory suggests sustainable growth requires self-disruption. Also a disrupted company can be re-configured post-disruption into another entity or can muddle along with limited value indefinitely. Sometimes they can rise up and become disruptors again.

  1. See David vs. Goliath: using a projectile allowed David to overcome Goliath but only when wielded skillfully []