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Technology is considered disruptive when it appears, often unexpectedly, in the marketplace and creates a new market that grows at the expense of an existing one.
Andy Rachleff explains that disruptive technologies and products are not defined by being “better, cheaper and faster”. Often they are inferior to the
products or processes that they displace. Instead, disruption occurs when a product is created that can meet the needs of a market that couldn’t be served
or one that is so significantly simpler, cheaper or convenient that the incumbent isn’t able to economically respond to the competitor.
The theory of disruption was first described in the 1997 bestselling business book called The Innovator’s Dilemma by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen. Seventeen years later with seemingly scores of examples of the theory playing out in practice, it seemed unlikely that anyone would question this theory. Examples of disruptive technologies include digital photography versus chemical photography, the cloud versus on-premise, downloadable media versus CDs, DVDs versus VCR, Google adwords versus traditional advertising, and Skype versus landline phones.
Yet recently, another Harvard professor, Jill Lepore, did just that. She claimed that disruption on it’s own is not a strategy that should be encouraged. She described disruption as a “competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.” While change can be good, change simply for the sake of change isn’t. Businesses in Silicon Valley have become “transfixed by change” and become “blind to continuity”. Lepore argues that that kind of thinking undermines productive stability.
Some of Lepore’s criticisms ring true. Like the fact that Silicon Valley has overdone the philosophy that the only way new companies can succeed is by blowing up existing industries and institutions with new alternatives. Despite her attempt of criticism though, it’s hard to argue against Christensen’s original observation that disruptive technologies abound around us today and that any market can become vulnerable to new ways of thinking.