Innovation Talk: Disruption has many disguises
What can Ernest Hemingway teach us about industrial disruption? The master of terse prose was more concerned with war, pugilism and other overt displays of masculinity than with the ups and downs of the marketplace, after all.
“How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly,” Hemingway famously wrote. “That is how disruption happens,” Sinofsky concludes.
Gradually, then suddenly. That timescale is borne out by the fate of both RIM and also of Nokia, the two major victims of the modern smartphone. Horace Dediu, the most perceptive mobile analyst in the business, recently pointed out how both RIM and Nokia, who looked like untouchable behemoths of the mobile industry just a few years ago, actually managed to increase sales until 2010 or so, three years after the debut of the iPhone, before their businesses fell off a cliff.
The full scale of their ignominious collapse – both sold for a pittance in recent months – is only now coming into perspective, pored over by analysts, investors and business professors eager to understand the dynamics of their decline. The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail recently published an exhaustive account of Blackberry’s fall from grace, prompting Sinofsky to pen his essay on how disruptive forces feel to those being disrupted.
“Disruption has a couple of characteristics that make it fun to talk about,” Sinofsky writes. “While it is happening even with a chorus of people claiming it is happening, it is actually very difficult to see. After it has happened the chorus of ‘told you so’ grows even louder and more matter of fact.” (Reading between the lines, Sinofsky is none too subtly describing the dilemma faced by Microsoft.)
It’s instructive to read that Globe and Mail article in conjunction with Fred Vogelstein’s recent piece on the introduction of the iPhone in the New York Times. Side by side, they show the internal forces that sent one firm into the stratosphere and consigned the other into irrelevancy. The obsessive drive of Steve Jobs, pushing his team to ever greater heights of engineering achievement, versus the complacency of RIM’s then chief executives Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, content to compromise with carriers and limit their engineering ambition.
But that narrative, about the iPhone merely disrupting RIM and Nokia, oversimplifies what “disruption” is all about, in a business sense. What we often describe as disruption is the process defined by Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen, author of the classic business text The Innovator’s Dilemma.