Interrupting the disruption and getting back to innovation

One of the quintessential reads for technology strategists is “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen. It portrays the concept of disruptive innovation, an unexpected change opening up new markets and ecosystems, unlocking value difficult for most to access in an old market.

Technologists (me included) became enamored with the concept. Christensen captured what we saw occuring around us for decades, starting with the birth of the transistor and everything it spawned. The arrival of the microprocessor and the innovation of the personal computer defined a generation, and made heroes and fortunes.

But somewhere along the path, we – not Christensen, but the rest of us – confused disruptive innovation with plain old disruption.

Disruption is a familiar mechanism in storytelling. Take Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan. After driving into the nebula to equalize the odds by rendering sensors mostly useless, Kirk predictably becomes impatient with the game of hide and seek. Wanting to regain tactical advantage, he wonders where the next attack will come from. Spock offers a tactical assessment of the opponent.

He is intelligent, but inexperienced.
His pattern indicates … two dimensional thinking.

The next command is Z minus 10,000 meters, engineering speak for a three dimensional move. Disruption for the win: a harmless flyover, a move to six o’clock position, fire all weapons, listen as villain quotes Moby Dick, flee from weapon of mass destruction, realize the costs, bury a hero, live to play again.

Clichés for disruption have sprung up all over business literature: “change the game”, “think out of the box”, “break the mold”, “leapfrog the competition” and other rallying cries have been heard in every conference room.

A prime example is Amazon, who surveyed the landscape and aggregated choices into a massive disruption that eventually wiped out bookstore chains, damaged electronics retailers, shifted a market from “web hosting” to “cloud computing”, and messed up publishing to the point where the disrupter can now afford to buy the disruptee. Some would say this is disruptive innovation, but it fails the Christensen test: it didn’t improve market access in most cases, with the exception of Amazon Web Services and EC2. It just redirected the ecosystem and money towards Amazon.

It paid to be disruptive, for a while, until everyone was trying to do it. If everyone is constantly attempting to disrupt each other in a confused melee, the narrative becomes less like Star Trek with a decisive victory and more like Sons of Anarchy: a lot of activity, but few lasting outcomes – just more instability.

Jeff Bezos may have come to exactly the same conclusion I have: we can’t afford to disrupt everything anymore. A newspaper, even one in the seat of political power, seems an odd purchase for an online magnate. But if there is anyone who understands this disruption, it should be the guy who created it. Reviving an institution like the Washington Post, and solving the dilemma of how print and online news can work in harmony, is an immense challenge. I hope he succeeds in the effort, and in the process finds a way to stabilize the publishing industry.

With so many industries in flux – add healthcare, education, transportation, energy, housing, agriculture, and others to ones already mentioned – and so many people out of work or greatly underutilized and disvalued, we need to take a hard look at interrupting the disruption and getting back to innovation.

Since his original publication in 1997, Christensen has extended his thinking to try to reflect this much more complex situation. He lays out a model where disruption occurs first at the bottom of a market. Once established, sustaining innovation is practiced by the incumbents, which succeeds for a while until their product becomes too complex. At that point, they become the target of other disruptive innovations from new entrants.

We are seeing a sustaining innovation strategy playing out with Apple and Samsung. Too many choices befuddle buyers and become cost ineffective for all but the most profitable firms to maintain. Smartphone marketing is now down to “cool, it pauses video when you look away,” or a campaign appealing to emotions in the personal experience of photography, video chat, and music. Consumers reach for what resonates. Choices that don’t simply and quickly resonate disappear.

images from Apple iPhone commercial, courtesy PetaPixel

images from Apple iPhone commercial, courtesy PetaPixel

Technologists don’t respond the same way; we place a high value on disruption and creating better solutions. In the age of “makers”, open source software, fabless semiconductors, FPGAs, and crowdfunding, we are seeing more and more ideas created and supported by communities. Truly innovative ideas have been launched, but other lesser ideas which would have not survived in the not-too-distant past of market-driven selection now find a niche too, perhaps too easily.

Too many technologies all vying for a similar task spell trouble. I was writing a white paper on the Internet of Things (IoT) for a client this week, and realized how huge the problem is. To create 50 billion or more devices, we have a dozen microcontroller architectures, a couple dozen wireless sensor networks, and a few dozen operating systems – and the list is growing. All of it works for something, but not nearly enough of it works together. The disrupters are disrupting the disrupters.

If we expect the IoT to connect everything and everyone, the right strategy for developers is creative inclusion, still highly innovative but operating at a different level. Innovation can embrace many disparate low-level technologies, integrating them into the tapestry of billions of devices and opening up services to billions of people.

A great example is the open Home Automation Bus (openHAB) project. Based on the Eclipse Equinox project, running an OSGi framework, openHAB bundles allow various home automation protocols to be plugged in. Got another protocol? Add a bundle dynamically, or write a completely new one and add it. Replace a protocol? Remove a bundle from the mix.

openHAB architecture

Another example is the work of the Continua Health Alliance in connected medical device interoperability. For mHealth to succeed, devices must do more than connect. They must integrate with the bigger healthcare network and “big data”, sharing little data seamlessly and securely on-demand.

A powerful third example is massive open online courses (MOOCs), with ideas to open higher education using social media technology without destroying the existing university system. Michael Peters offers an interesting observation about the concept, suggesting not to view it as a disruption:

… it is helpful to see this change not just as a new technology for delivering teaching to large numbers of students. It is really more a wider set of socio-technological changes that might be better explained within a theory of postindustrial education focusing on social media as the new culture.

These three ideas may not be the ones that win ultimately in their respective spaces, but they do show a shift in thinking toward creative inclusion.

We have more than enough technological disruption, for now. In the new economy, innovative technological frameworks applying creative inclusion will build lasting, sustainable value – the new cool thing to do.

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