Let's Talk Revolution, Not Disruption by Karen Walker

We don't say breakthroughs in science are disruptions to the diagnosis and treatment of terminal illnesses, so why call revolutions in the operation, products and services of organisations and their industries, disruptions?

From 2010 the business world seriously started talking 'disruptive organisations'disruptions to industries, and individuals being professional disruptors, although Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen's seminal article “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave” dates back to 1995.

Christensen's best seller published in 1997 The Innovators Dilemma brought "disruptive innovation" into our vernacular; radical changes to products, services and an organisation's core business by adopting technological advancements. Differing from more traditional incremental change he called “sustaining innovations”.

How 'Disrupt' Got Turned Into An Overused Buzzword gives a fascinating account of how Silicon Valley's embrace of "disruption" rendered the word useless. "Every time a company creates something new, beats another one out, or applies data or software to a new industry, it has instantly “disrupted.”

Examples of high end innovations wrongly described as disruptions include "Google’s victory over Yahoo in search and web mail", and Uber "creating very convenient, high-end improvement on taxi dispatch systems and regulations." Examples of services and products being better, cheaper and more convenient rather than being disruptive.

The outcry and legal challenges from the traditional taxi industry indicates they feel 'disrupted' by Uber's innovative technology, their organisations and livelihoods under threat.

Whilst the taxi industry felt "disrupted" by Uber, for users of traditional taxi services our lives weren't disrupted rather enhanced, through the option of an improved customer experience.

Businesses who have failed to revolutionise their business in the face of scientific and technological advancements, and more adaptive, innovative and customer-centric competitors, should rethink whether they've been "disrupted". Or just been complacent and slow to act.

Words matter,"disruption" carrying negative connotations of difficulties, damage, upheavals and loss, and even Clayton Christensen agrees disruptive innovation has become a cliche.

Already employees are fearful of what "disruption" means to their jobs, our media littered with futurists predicting many roles will be lost to AI and robots causing significant unemployment, although history tells us another story. Why Futurist Ray Kurzweil Isn't Worried About Technology Stealing Your Job notes, "We have already eliminated all jobs several times in human history. How many jobs circa 1900 exist today?"

In 1900 if futurists had been asked what new jobs would replace those predicted to become redundant during the last century, the answer would rightfully have been,"I don’t know. We haven’t invented them yet."

For today's organisations to survive and thrive, they rely heavily on their employee's performance, and as W. Edwards Deming said, "No one can put in their best performance unless they feel secure." Google's Project Aristotle study and other research highlights that psychological safety is the most important contributor to innovative and high performing teams.

It's counterintuitive for leaders to talk with their employees about "disruption" - to their industry, business and roles - the same people whose ideas and performance determines whether the organisation remains relevant and competitive. A mission impossible for anyone distracted by job security concerns or tribes of consultants and others arriving to "disrupt" their organisation.

In the age of accelerated advancements in science, technology and globalisation bringing an array of unimaginable benefits, let's celebrate and engage employees as crucial to creating these "revolutions", rather than talking from a defensive and misleading context: "disruption".


Karen Walker is an Advisor, Expert and Operative in Strategy Execution, the series of decisions and actions undertaken to turn strategic visions of organisations into reality. An evolving journey of understanding possibilities and using situational awareness to adapt tactics and goals to realise maximum value. 

A specialist in the casino and gaming industry, with extensive experience in the implementation of new and innovative practices and the establishment of greenfield operations, Karen’s career spans senior operational management and leadership, program director, project and change management, and business transformation lead roles, across a number of sectors.