Why it's time to retire 'disruption', Silicon Valley's emptiest buzzword

San Jose, California - Silicon Valley

An experienced, well-educated friend of mine has been looking for a job for close to six months, and I’ve been helping her with feedback on her CV.

Throughout her early 20s she worked for a succession of tech startups and app development incubators that came out of the gate roaring, only to dribble out – and cut staff – in a matter of months, leaving her in the frustrating experience of less than a year’s experience with a single firm. Each new position becomes harder for her to land than the last one.

We’re brainstorming her applications, and the plan is to call her “agile”. She can work in upstart environments, she’s eager to learn and can adapt to change. She wants to be part of something that’s growing even if there’s risk involved, she says, trying to find a positive narrative for herself in her employers’ successive failures.

“I’m passionate about disruptive tech,” the cover letter reads.

Disruptive. Let’s take that one out, I suggest. The Silicon Valley buzzword has the aftertaste of a sucked battery. It doesn’t even mean anything any more.

It used to. In the late 1990s, the Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen defined the concept of “disruptive innovation”, a principle whereby entrenched, dominant product or service providers could be unseated in the market (have their leadership position disrupted) by smaller rivals who offered solutions more simply or at less cost.

It makes sense at a glance: think about how many people you know who now use Uber in cities like London, where the cost of traditional black cabs has been unaffordable for many for so long. Or: remember when the rise of online price comparison services promised to slash the average costs of air travel, or car insurance? Perhaps your memory even extends far back enough to that dim time when you realized it was more efficient to subscribe at a flat rate to Netflix than to pay for rentals at your local ghost-town Blockbuster?

“Disruption” slid easily into startup culture’s notional toolbox, helping small teams without much initial funding believe that they stood a chance of upending industries. There grew a sort of moral halo around the word, too: disruption is about solving old market problems and making solutions easier and more available to new markets, which means it theoretically stands to puncture the kind of bureaucracy and complacency that hampers humanitarian efforts.

And so the word “disruptive” became attractive to investors as well as employers (or so my friend hopes). There’s a nifty tangle, though: how often are “moral good” and “attractive to investors” genuinely found in the same room?

As so often happens when there is money to be made, the promise of disruption may have been over-estimated. In recent years, academic studies have questioned the central premises of Christensen’s original “disruptive innovation” theory – that outsiders can produce cheap solutions that can displace existing market leaders. Can upstarts really flip the order of things? Do they provide significantly improved or more attainable products or user experiences, or do they simply become the new status quo?

Signs point to status quo. In a frequently cited study, only 9% of Christensen’s 77 examples of companies primed for disruption were found to follow the model. Most of the time, the march of innovation continues as normal, with new entrants to any market nosing softly at the needle and offering more choices for consumers, while the primary holders of economic power generally get to keep holding it.

There’s no doubt that innovators can do good work with some of the core concepts behind the disruptive innovation theory, looking for ways to simplify market problems with attainable solutions. For example, Miki Agarwal, CEO of THINX, is tackling the taboo around menstruation and their associated sanitary products with discreet, absorbent underpants, an idea that could have particularly useful implications in the developing world, where, according to the UN, girls without access to tampons or pads sometimes just don’t go to school. THINX is also marketing a product line for transgender men, who open up on the official site about the importance of receiving support for gender dysphoria.

But it almost doesn’t suit this compassionate innovation to conceive of it as a great wrecking ball smashing into the headquarters of the $15bn tampon industry. Why isn’t it enough to add an important innovation to a space that sorely needs it? Why must the company be characterised as out to crush Big Tampon, especially when it’s inconceivable that any single solution should devour all other options? In the midst of Agarwal’s important work, there’s the word “disrupt”, like a weird leering bull ready to charge.

Ian Bogost, professor at Georgia Tech, says: “The big difference between even disruptive innovation and plain disruption is that the former was focused on some improvement to a product or service or sector or community, while the latter is looking first at what it can destroy.

“Everything is fire and brimstone. It’s entrepreneurship as Southern Baptism. You can’t just make a product somewhat different or better … and even when it does ‘destroy’, it just recreates the same thing.”

Like most buzzwords, this one has little other than chest-thumping left – even Hillary Clinton recently deployed it in a call for Silicon Valley to fight Isis. “Disruptive” always used to be the word for the naughty child at the back of the class ruining it for everyone else. And really, that meaning has never changed. It describes the sort of serial entrepreneur who can ride from one start-up to the next without much fear for his future, or much regard for the young tech workers left in the lurch when each company crumples in.

My friend knows too well how that goes. She’s considering looking for work in banking or enterprise software next; when it comes to tech, her life has been disrupted enough.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Leigh Alexander, for theguardian.com on Monday 11th January 2016 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010