Famed business consultant and writer Peter Drucker is well known for saying: “If you want something new, you’ve got to stop doing something old.” In essence, change and innovation don’t just happen on their own; typically, they require a new way of thinking, a new perspective, or a better model. What they require is today’s word, disruption.
Coming directly from the Medieval Latin disruptionem, meaning ‘a breaking asunder, splitting, or shattering’, our word originated as the Latin verb rumpere, meaning ‘to break’, along with the prefix, dis-, denoting ‘apart or a separation’.
Though we have come to think of the term in relation to business, products, and even pop culture, the origin of the word is actually medical in nature. First used by Sir Thomas Browne in his 1646 work challenging the errors and superstitions of the time, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, he writes of the particularly nasty way in which vipers are born: “Theophrastus.. conceived..that upon a full and plentiful impletion there may succeed a disruption of the matrix.” Again, while this isn’t necessarily how we think of the term, this usage – which we may now call a rupture – could still easily apply to the puncturing of financial bubbles, like the savings and loan crisis, the 1987 market crash, the dot-com bubble, or the subprime meltdown.
Beyond the medical concept, the term soon became used to describe natural phenomena and geologic processes, with Thomas Burnet writing in Theory of the Earth (1684) that: “These great earthquakes and disruptions, that did such great execution upon the body of the earth.” and Richard Kirwan, in Geological Essays (1799), records that: “These pillars did not assume the columnar form by crystallization, but by disruption.”
For the disruption that we have come to consider, meaning more of a distinctive change and less of a natural science event, the first instance of this usage can be found in John Adams’ translation of A Voyage to South America, by Spanish explorer Antonio de Ulloa, where he mentions how “They..rend the earth, and at every shock leave it full of disruptions.”
To this point, disruption has been used with a rather negative connotation; however, this typically only applies to the status quo. Looking at the other, positive side, we can thank disruption for many of the things that we now consider to be normal. This concept, first defined and used in 1995 by academic and business consultant Clayton M. Christensen, views disruption (in market/product/technology terms) as a product of innovation which serves to develop new markets, and value networks.
For example, in 1900, with automobiles still being an unaffordable luxury, transportation was still largely reliant on the horse, but the innovation of the Henry Ford’s Model T in 1908 caused a disruption in the market. In modern technological terms, it’s the same as the reason why people do more on their smartphones and less on PDAs, tablets, and laptops. It’s Wikipedia and Kindle instead of physical books, or in jaw-dropping data terms, it’s USB flash drives instead of Zip drives instead of 3.5” floppy discs instead of 5.25” floppy discs instead of 8” floppy discs instead of 14” hard discs. That being said, in future terms, there appears to be a give and take: full digital economic transformation and the possibility of asteroid mining could be worth a USD 100 trillion value each; however, drug-resistant infections could put USD 100 trillion of economic output at risk. Considering that disruption is, well, disruptive, perhaps we risk the bad with the good?