By Anders Drejer & Christer Windeloew-Lidzélius

Dealing with Disruption 2.0

Taken totally by surprise by the changes in Communist Cuba in the 1960s, the fictional main character of singer/songwriter Warren Zevon’s 1988 song is thrown into jail and writes to his father, “Send lawyers, guns and money/Dad, get me out of this”. The sentence perfectly sums up the first reaction of top managers when their industry is being disrupted.

Somewhat to the surprise of those of us who worked in the field of innovation management in the late 1990s, the concept of disruption has come back to create major interest in the fields of management research; in the general public; and, notably, amongst politicians all over the world. In the authors’ native land of Denmark, the government has even appointed an advisory board to advise the Government on the effects of disruption upon Danish society. Interestingly, the members of the advisory board consist of a mixed selection of top managers from old industrial companies; representatives from NGOs; and people from the cultural elite, including a comedian, but, alas, no scientists specializing in disruption! Perhaps it is a good idea to devote some space and effort to tracing the origins and contents of disruption.

The Rise of Disruption

In tracing the origins of disruption, it is hard not to mention Clayton M. Christensen, who introduced the concept of “disruptive technological change” in his seminal “Innovator’s Dilemma” from 1998. And it is true that the word “disruptive” – as opposed to so-called “sustainable” technological changes, changes that help current market leaders to continue to be so – seems to have been coined by Christensen and his school of thought.

However, Christensen was far from the only one to acknowledge the importance of technological changes to the field of management and, more importantly, to the work of top managers all over the world. For instance, in 1995, Bettis and Hitt wrote on that same issue that “…technology is rapidly altering the nature of competition in the late twentieth century…” In fact, they also guest-edited an issue of the Strategic Management Journal entirely devoted to discussing how technology will change the nature of competition and strategy in the years to come. Bettis and Hitt refer to the situation as “the new competitive landscape”.

It is also paramount to mention the work of Downes and Mui, who, at the same time as Christensen and others, tapped into technological change and offered some form of explanation as to why technology and technological change seem to have such a profound impact on competition and strategy. Downes and Mui observed that the basic problem of technological changes is that they often happen much faster than we as people, organisations or societies are able to adapt.

Figure 1 The Law of Disruption. Source: Unleashing the Killer App.

The Comeback

To us, it is important to note that the concept of disruption has evolved since its origin. When disruption originated, the concept was primarily an advancement in theory – a concept that, thanks to Clayton M. Christensen, helps us explain why certain kinds of technological change will topple current market leaders in favour of new ones, whereas other kinds of technological change will sustain current market leaders. When the idea of exponential technological change was born, almost at the same time, it became clear to a lot of researchers that the idea of competition and, therefore, that of strategic management needed to be reconsidered in light of disruption and its effects. Obviously, this was important to the scientific community and to managers and entrepreneurs riding the first wave of what was to come, but it was hardly noticed by the general public and its representatives, the legislators.

This has since changed. Disruption anno 2021 does not only urge us to find out new ways to conduct management in theory and practice. It forces us to rethink how we define our societies, families and social structures in order to survive in the future. Disruption anno 2021 is a force that changes society as we know it.

On a personal note, the idea that the concept of disruption has, for good reason, changed over the years is much more appealing to us than the alternative, the alternative being that politicians simply have not picked up on all of our work on disruption for 20 years or that we have failed to communicate its importance to said politicians.

Consider this: did your national leaders react with due diligence to Disruption 2.0? Or did they try to react with Lawyers, Guns and Money?

Kaospilot Publishing launches a journal aimed at disseminating research, ideas and opinions about innovation and related fields. This piece is out is by Anders Drejer and Christer Windeløv-Lidzélius. It speaks to the fundamental need of renewal and development.

Also available through Spiro School of Business -The Innovation Series

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