Each Monday, I’ll be posting a piece that will be a theme we carry for a week. Here’s this week’s theme – What is disruption? I’m frequently asked this simple question and I give a simple answer—it is a painful change. The reason I answer it this way is that I believe we need to stop thinking about disruption as an absolute, something that is black or white, either disruptive or not.

Disruption is much more nuanced, more of a gradient that stretches from not being disruptive at all (a.k.a. embracing the status quo) to extremely disruptive and capable of driving huge amounts of exponential change. The reality is that it’s somewhere in between for most people and organizations. 

I recently spoke with someone who works in IT in the federal government and how they wanted to simply enable WiFi in the building so that people could bring their laptops into meeting rooms and still be able to be online. This seems like a simple thing—until they ran up against all of the security and oversight requirements that the department needed. In this case, putting in WiFi access was disruptive because getting it in place required the IT and Legal departments to change their security protocols, incurring potential risk when their jobs are to eliminate all (not some) risks. 

To better understand what disruption is, let’s take our favorite perennial favorite disruptive company to bash, Uber. Clayton Christensen, the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, argued in 2015 that Uber isn’t a disruptive innovation because it created a service that directly challenged the pre-existing taxi market. But looked at another way, Uber created a new source of drivers AND riders, creating a new service that not only replaced taxis but grew the addressable market. By any count, that’s pretty disruptive. 

Uber also demonstrates that disruption doesn’t spring from new technologies. Think about – what is the brilliant new technology that Uber leveraged? Just location-based services on your mobile phone which had been around for years. 

And lastly, disruption isn’t just for start-ups. At some point, Uber and many other tech players like Amazon, Facebook, and Google, have become giants while still maintaining their disruptive edge. Incumbents have the brand, cash, customers, and employees to steer market opportunities towards themselves. They also have the one thing that constantly threatens their ability to be disruptive — existing customers. Start-ups have that one advantage — they must focus on future customers, where disruptive opportunities lie because that’s their only choice. 

As we kick off this week, please share what disruption looks like for you as a leader and for your organization. Because being able to identify it, give it a name, and understand its potential to harm or grow your organization is essential.