Plannedscape Postings


A Stupid Term In Stupid Situations

Posted by Charlie Recksieck on 2023-07-06
I hate the term "disruptor".

The majority of people who claim they are a disruptor do so before they've actually disrupted anything. When somebody is a self-proclaimed disruptor it seems at best a pitch to mediocre venture capitalists and at worst a bro-ey buzzword.

Origins Of The Term

"Disruption" as a competitive business term is credited to Clayton Christensen who now says "Everyone hijacks the idea to do whatever they want. It's the same way people hijacked the word 'paradigm' to justify lame things they're trying to sell to mankind" (according to

The original term meant something else. NY Magazine explains that "Christensen defined 'disruptive innovation' as the process by which "technologically straightfoward" services and products target the bottom end of an established market, then move their way up the chain until, eventually, they overtake the existing market leaders.

"Innovating" is not "Disrupting"

I'm sure Elon Musk views himself as a disruptor. I agree that he is disruptive. Tesla often gets praised as a disruptor for the automotive industry by popularizing electric vehicles. It's absolutely a significant innovation for sure - but they still are just making cars that get purchased.

If you were to start a pizza restaurant across the street from a longtime neighborhood pizzeria and yours eventually became so successful and the old establishment goes out of business - are you a "disruptor" or do you just make better pizza?

What Happened To "Find A Need And Fill It"?

We could probably all think of 1 or 2 companies that truly were disruptors like Airbnb or Netflix. But not that many.

Personally, I don't think the chronic misuse of the term "disruption" is merely annoying. If I hear somebody drop the D-word, I hear a guy running his mouth who probably doesn't actually understand the industry he's trying to upend - or respect the milestones of what his competitors have actually accomplished.

We're Not Done Trashing "Disruption"

While disruptors are often hailed as visionaries who revolutionize industries and challenge established norms, their impact can be far from positive and/or effective.

Firstly, the disruption caused by these companies often comes at the expense of stability and long-term sustainability. Disruptors enter markets claiming to have innovations that may undermine existing businesses,

Also, the scorched earth attitude that usually accompanies people who talk of disruption and overlook that it leads to layoffs, bankruptcies, and economic instability. A constant state of upheaval can create an unstable business environment that is awful for employees and confusing for consumers.

Disruptive companies probably have a higher incidence of compromised ethics or even extralegal corporate behavior. For instance, Uber sure does seem like it's been a legitimate disruptor - at least if torpedoing the taxi industry is a measure of their disruptive bona fides. So, who cares that a massive amount of drivers can only use it for supplemental income. Or that their early market-share successes were mostly driven by huge V.C. investments and now prices are rising without investment money keeping rates artificially low.

Additionally, the belief in disruption tends to idolize a select few individuals or companies (Steve Jobs, anyone?) overshadowing the collaborative efforts and improvements from the people actually doing the work or real-world strategic planning. They're often portrayed as lone geniuses, perpetuating the myth that innovation is the result of solitary brilliance rather than collective expertise and cooperation.

The Takeaway

I can't prove it with evidence, but my advice would be if you work for a company who has an executive with a job title of "Chief Disruption Officer" (yes, that's a real thing) - don't expect to be working there in two years. Not because the CDO is more likely than a skilled executive to call for massive layoffs (though he is) but because that company is more likely than not going to be gone in two years.

One more takeaway: if you call yourself a disrupter, 4 out of the 5 people in the room are rolling their eyes at you in their head just as if you had said "paradigm shift" or "30,000-feet view". Don't be that guy.