How to disrupt disruption?

Blog post
Nando Malmelin
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I started in my new position as a Professor of Practice at VTT last spring. My mission is to foster disruptive thinking in organizations as well as to develop new tools and practices for managing and harnessing disruptions in business.

It has been an inspiring job. On the other hand, disruption is a frustrating concept. Although disruption is an important phenomenon in many industries, as a concept it is annoyingly elusive and unspecific.

The very word ‘disruption’ seems to bring forth a diversity of interpretations. Most people consider the subject topical and inspiring. For others, the question is more like: “What does it actually mean, and why should I care?” And then there is a third, cynical group that feels that the term is good for nothing except for selling hip consultant services.

These people are tired of hearing about ‘disruption’. The same could be said about ‘creativity’, not to mention ‘innovation’.

However, it isn’t the concepts themselves that are to blame. The problem is us, the people.

Jargon terms like ‘disruption’ have become vague and unclear because they are used so ambiguously. These buzzwords have become hollow and meaningless. They are dead inside.

It’s easy to jargonize without anyone calling you out on the fact that your babble doesn’t actually mean anything. At any given seminar or strategy workshop, we can all enthusiastically agree that “transformative renewal requires ecosystemic creativity and disruptive innovations”.

And where exactly does this kind of shared vision lead us? Nowhere. Nothing happens. And that isn’t even the real problem here: the problem is that no one cares that nothing happens.

It’s all just talk, and that’s good enough for most people. Reciting buzzwords and slogans is easy, because it doesn’t require individual considerations. Speaking in jargon is an excellent way of avoiding critical thinking.

Alf Rehn, in his brilliant book Innovation for the fatigued, reported on a human experiment that is a perfect illustration of the problem. Addressing the management team in a client company, he gave a talk filled with innovation jargon and management clichés but with no point or logic. No one questioned the talk or its content, but many did take meticulous notes.

This kind of lack of questioning has been paralysing organisations for far too long.

It’s time to move forward.

We need new tools and management practices to renew our organizations. We especially need new ideas and concepts that inspire us to question things and to act differently.

One example of this is Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovations, which explains why successful companies fail to reinvent themselves and eventually lose market share to new arrivals. Christensen’s thoughts on the subject continue to frame the debate today, even though they were published more than two decades ago.

So what will be the next theory or idea that will disrupt the very debate on disruption? I don’t know yet. What I know is that every time we challenge vague and fuzzy concepts, question distorting half-truths and demand critical thinking from one another, we come a step closer to finding out.

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