Is It Even Possible to Be Disruptively Innovative Anymore?


When you take a good, hard look at the current landscape of tech, the picture you see might not be encouraging for the intrepid company looking to change the game with a new and innovative product. It’s easy to assume that everything's been done, and it’s easy to concede that a few companies have gathered so much power that they can’t effectively be challenged anymore. All of that begs the question, is it even possible to be disruptively innovative anymore?

When Clayton Christensen first coined the phrase “disruptive innovation” in the mid-90s, we were living in a very different world. Before the dot-com bubble burst and the explosion of innovation in the past couple decades, the world of tech still seemed ripe with possibilities. Now, after years of iterative loops and the firm establishment of a few major companies, the window for disruption just doesn’t seem as wide open as it used to be.

These days, the renegade tech innovators that made Silicon Valley what it is have become a part of a new establishment that aims to control and moderate every new trend and opportunity. Any startup that comes in seems to quickly be consumed by the giants.

Let’s take a look at Snapchat as an example. While it may not have changed the world in a particularly powerful and meaningful way, there’s no doubt that Snapchat was an incredibly disruptive force both in the market and in the behavior of millions of people. But now years later, Facebook has slowly but surely been able to take control back with its iteration toward Facebook and Instagram Stories.

The incumbents who are supposed to be challenged and ultimately pushed out by the disruptive force have become so smart and so powerful that they can seemingly re-assert control with sufficient time and effort. They are just as knowledgeable about disruptive innovation than anyone, just as tapped into the market, and equipped with all the resources they need to make short work of any upstarts that would dare to threaten their position.

These days, Clayton Christensen spends his time defining and redefining what disruptive innovation really means now that his phrase has become so all-encompassing. Even the definition of the theory gets narrower and narrower, it seems.

So where’s the feckless, plucky startup with a lot of heart and a great idea supposed to fit into this puzzle? How can they hope to change the game when it seems like the market has no place for them anymore? How can they reinvent the wheel when it seems like everything has been done already?

We can find our answer by looking at a broader sweep of history than the last 30 years. It’s easy to look at this small stretch of time and accept that all the doors to new ideas have closed. But if we think a little more broadly, we must accept that if there is any one constant in life and in history, it’s that things must change.

No king rules forever and no company is so powerful that they will be able to stamp out all the weeds in their garden. It would be a simple thing to give up and let those kings rule without investing yourself in trying to make any of that change happen. It’s much harder to keep trying even when it seems impossible.

Disruptive innovation was never about the strictures of theory that Christenson laid out all those years ago. It was and still is simply the belief in change, the belief in opportunity, and the belief that you can always come up with something so dynamic in the current moment that it changes the way we live our lives. At the risk of sounding extremely cheesy, I feel strongly that we lose out on disruptive innovation only when everyone stops believing in it.

Maybe you find a new disruptive opportunity by recognizing that what we want is a little more simplicity in all this noise. Maybe you make a powerful new connection between two things no one imagined could fit together before. Or maybe you accept that the greatness of a product has nothing to do with how new or innovative it is.

Ultimately, what this all amounts to is that there’s not much value in chasing someone else’s definition of what disruption is and what success is. All you have to worry about is your own ideas, your own passions, and your own aspirations. Basically, don’t ask for permission. Those disruptive innovators we love to talk about probably didn’t either.

— ZK

Ed Lynes13p5Comment