'Disrupt' is not a synonym for 'Compete in'

In all the startup coverage I read, I find one word misused an alarming amount. That word is “Disrupt”.

In this article about Flowdock, Leena Rao says that Flowdock “aims to disrupt the group chat space.” I read on, excitedly, to see what new market Flowdock was entering that wasn’t currently occupied by a group chat application, or what new value network they have created that no other chat application currently employs. Instead, I got a list of features that Flowdock had that others lacked: “[Flowdock shows] activity from project management tools, version control systems, customer feedback channels, and other sources in a single stream”. That is not disruptive. At all. That is very nearly the exact definition of a sustaining innovation.

Clayton Christensen coined ‘disruptive technology’ as a concept in his article Disruptive Technologies, and expanded upon it further in his groundbreaking book The Innovator’s Dilemma. In it, Christensen explains that a disruptive technology (or innovation) is one that creates a new market and value network, which then displaces a technology in another market. This other market is said to be “disrupted”. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disruptive_innovation

A good historical example is the steamship, which was first deployed in areas that were not as profitable for sailing ships and were more difficult to service (e.g. the Mississippi River). They then went on to disrupt the Seagoing shipping routes that were dominated by sailing ships.

The startup technology press, especially TechCrunch, loves this term. It has come to embody any type of innovation, whether sustaining or disruptive. As a result, the term becomes diluted, and even worse, becomes a buzzword that everyone has to have on a slide next to Globalized and Dynamic and Cloud.

Not every innovation is disruptive. Not every innovation should be. Disruption is a very specific concept, and should be treated as such. Let’s not forget, most disruptive technologies aren’t sexy (one of Clayton Christensen’s examples was a hydraulic excavator) and many of them aren’t classified as disruptive until after they successfully displace the previous technology.

So please, TechCrunch, you’ve already done enough damage to the word “Disrupt” by using it as the title of a startup event, at least use it right in the context of an article about a startup.