About Disruption

Disruption is a theory of change founded on panic, anxiety, and shaky evidence. Illustration by Brian Stauffer.

Disruption is a theory of change founded on panic, anxiety, and shaky evidence. Illustration by Brian Stauffer.

In an interview published on Friday, at the very end there is a sentence that caught our attention:

…I could list all kinds of problems that we still need to resolve, because a theory is developed in a process, not an event. [Disruption] has never happened in the hotel industry, for example…

It jumped from the page at us because “disruption” is such a powerful concept in current business strategy thinking, and because Raxa Collective develops and manages hotels; we have every reason to be concerned about disruption (of the normal variety, of course, but especially the strategic variety).

On whether disruption has never happened in the hotel industry: “chain” formation a century ago disrupted the millenia-old universal business model of owner-operated lodging; more recently, online travel agencies have altered the fortunes of the hotel industry sufficiently to force transformation of how hotels distribute their product; and at the same time the internet has enabled segments of the hotel industry that were previously dependent on travel agencies for survival to distribute their product independently of intermediaries, which seems disruptive.

Over the weekend our attention turned from that sentence above to what spurred it. The interview refers to an article from the current issue of the New Yorker magazine that we have now read in entirety.  A historical analysis of one of the driving forces of today’s entrepreneurial culture makes clear how a paradigm can take hold without anyone questioning its underpinnings. When a prominent history professor challenges the fundamental premises of a prominent business school professor (and virtually the entire business world following that professor’s prescriptions) with language and imagery this rich, fireworks were a foregone conclusion:

…A pack of attacking startups sounds something like a pack of ravenous hyenas, but, generally, the rhetoric of disruption—a language of panic, fear, asymmetry, and disorder—calls on the rhetoric of another kind of conflict, in which an upstart refuses to play by the established rules of engagement, and blows things up. Don’t think of Toyota taking on Detroit. Startups are ruthless and leaderless and unrestrained, and they seem so tiny and powerless, until you realize, but only after it’s too late, that they’re devastatingly dangerous: Bang! Ka-boom! Think of it this way: the Times is a nation-state; BuzzFeed is stateless. Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.

Every age has a theory of rising and falling, of growth and decay, of bloom and wilt: a theory of nature. Every age also has a theory about the past and the present, of what was and what is, a notion of time: a theory of history. Theories of history used to be supernatural: the divine ruled time; the hand of God, a special providence, lay behind the fall of each sparrow. If the present differed from the past, it was usually worse: supernatural theories of history tend to involve decline, a fall from grace, the loss of God’s favor, corruption. Beginning in the eighteenth century, as the intellectual historian Dorothy Ross once pointed out, theories of history became secular; then they started something new—historicism, the idea “that all events in historical time can be explained by prior events in historical time.” Things began looking up. First, there was that, then there was this, and this isbetter than that. The eighteenth century embraced the idea of progress; the nineteenth century had evolution; the twentieth century had growth and then innovation. Our era has disruption, which, despite its futurism, is atavistic. It’s a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence.

Most big ideas have loud critics. Not disruption. Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to little serious criticism, partly because it’s headlong, while critical inquiry is unhurried; partly because disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with fogyism, as if to criticize a theory of change were identical to decrying change; and partly because, in its modern usage, innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box.

The idea of progress—the notion that human history is the history of human betterment—dominated the world view of the West between the Enlightenment and the First World War. It had critics from the start, and, in the last century, even people who cherish the idea of progress, and point to improvements like the eradication of contagious diseases and the education of girls, have been hard-pressed to hold on to it while reckoning with two World Wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, genocide and global warming. Replacing “progress” with “innovation” skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices are getting newer and newer.

The word “innovate”—to make new—used to have chiefly negative connotations: it signified excessive novelty, without purpose or end. Edmund Burke called the French Revolution a “revolt of innovation”; Federalists declared themselves to be “enemies to innovation.” George Washington, on his deathbed, was said to have uttered these words: “Beware of innovation in politics.” Noah Webster warned in his dictionary, in 1828, “It is often dangerous to innovate on the customs of a nation.”…

Read the whole article here.

One thought on “About Disruption

  1. Pingback: A Few Thoughts To Close The Year | Raxa Collective

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