Is Disruption More Than a Buzzword?


Synergy. Deep Dive. Move the Needle.

Pull up Buzzword Bingo and you’ll be bombarded by an onslaught of hollow lingo. They invade every vestige of your business—blending in so well that most of the time you don’t even notice them.

Buzzwords are the parsley of the business world. They’re for looks, not substance.

Consider disruption.

We’re constantly pummeled with that term. Peanuts disrupt chocolate. Laminate disrupts hardwood. Male rompers disrupt fashion. (We’re honestly still recovering from that one.)

Everyone—and everything—disrupts these days. So much so that the term is almost meaningless.

However, disruption was once a sound and impactful academic theory.

The Origin of Disruptive

Disruption traces to that little academic institution called Harvard. Clayton Christensen was serving as a Harvard professor when he came up with the idea of disruptive innovation way back in 1995.

He describes the concept of disruption as “… a process whereby a smaller company with fewer resources is able to successfully challenge established incumbent businesses.”

Simply put, it’s David vs. Goliath. And David is packing a lot more functionality and value. The Goliath in this scenario (aka the established company) makes a product that doesn’t suit the little guys and over-caters to the big customers. David (aka the entrepreneur) swoops in and targets the ignored segments with just the right-sized functionality. In turn, David grows bigger and bigger and adds value to its products while Goliath starts having slingshot nightmares.

Examples of Disruptive Innovation

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane. Remember Blockbuster Video? Before binging changed the screening game? Yeah, they cornered that market. People would crowd Blockbuster stores to rent the newest releases. Then Netflix, the new kid in town, came along and turned everything upside down. Netflix transformed digital media, forcing Blockbuster to go into early retirement. Why go somewhere to rent a movie when you can just press a button and watch it instantaneously?

But disruption isn’t just a new-age concept. In the 1950s, calculators were heavy pieces of machinery that stayed on desks. As technology evolved, companies delivered portable calculators that were much smaller, worked better, and were way cheaper.

What’s Not Disruptive

To label something as “disruptive” is a bit tricky, because it takes time to measure. The default these days is any new business that questions “the way it’s always been done” mentality.

But Christensen’s theory is complicated—it’s just not that simple.

According to the theory, Uber is new but it’s not disruptive. It launched as a mainstream competitor, as opposed to a service targeted at those who were underserved by existing transportation options at that time. It was another Goliath, not a David.

Do You Disrupt?

The million dollar question here is, does your company truly disrupt? Or are you just filling space with some lauded business lingo?

The Christensen Institute gives this diagram of questions to determine if your company is disruptive. The questions cover key parts of the theory including:

  • Target market
  • Quality of product
  • How innovation improves the product
  • Role of technology in the offering
  • The level of attention it derives


Next time you throw disrupt into a conversation, stop for a moment to consider if the term truly applies. Otherwise, you’re just notching another square in Buzzword Bingo.

April 3, 2018
Kate Wilson
Social Media Manager,
Kate is in charge of all things social at When she's not writing every type of content imaginable, she's drinking strong coffee and debating the use of the Oxford comma with her coworkers.