Disruption Theory Need Not Apply

on November 26, 2014
Reading Time: 2 minutes

The biggest challenge I see facing disruption theory is an understanding of when it applies vs. when it does not. Several posts lay the foundation for truth.

  1. Ben Thompson’s What Clay Christensen got wrong
  2. Jean-Louis Gassee’s Clayton Christensen becomes his own devil’s advocate.
  3. Disrupting Disruption Theory – by me.

A few weeks back, Horace Deidu and I had dinner and were discussing holes in the theory. That dinner led to he and I doing a podcast on the challenge of universal application of the theory. Jean-Louis Gasse re-opened this can of worms and, in a twitter conversation, Horace made an important point.

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Hence, my initial point. The greatest challenge to disruption theory is in understanding when it is applicable and when it is not. This single point will lead many to make false assumptions based on the academics of the theory and could have massive unintended consequences. For example, companies can go out of business chasing the wrong strategy.

The most glaring flaw today comes to Apple. We see disruption theory get misapplied to Apple by folks without the domain or market knowledge to understand it does not apply to them. I addressed this point in an article on why Apple is immune to disruption theory. In a fascinating and shining example of the misapplication of disruption theory, many fell into the trap in applying the theory to Apple when, in reality, it should have been applied to Samsung.

At a fundamental level I strongly believe disruption theory needs to also include an element of behavioral science. Here again, behavioral science need not be applied in all case studies, like the original hard disk drive study in Clayton Christensen’s book “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, but it absolutely needs to be applied when the consumer market is in play. One of the greatest flaws with the theory is how it handles buyers of a more emotional nature than a pragmatic one. The billions of individuals who make up the consumer market have very diverse and nuanced processes that impact their decisions on making a tech purchase. Perhaps my favorite example from this came from a post where I wrote “Familiarity is just as valuable a feature to some consumers as cutting-edge specs are to others“. Getting in the mind of consumers is hard work and not everyone has the ability to do it. But those who can have an edge in knowing how to apply disruption theory properly in pure consumer markets.

Like all theories, there is an evolutionary process. What has been lacking, until late, has been a more open and approachable discussion from an academic sense on disruption theory. I hope the many smart folks writing publicly will continue to play a role in the refining of disruption theory and pushing it forward in both academia and every day applications. It is still a useful and valuable theory. I used to warn investors more than two years ago that Samsung wasn’t in a sustainable position and Apple was. It serves a purpose but wisdom is knowing when it applies and when it does not.