Disruption: Where Specialness meets the Business World

by genspecial

Clayton Christensen–pioneer of the Unspecial

In reading an article on business guru Clayton Christensen from the May 14th Issue of the New Yorker (oh don’t pretend that you’re current with your New Yorkers–one and a half months ago isn’t so bad!), it became clear to us how prevalent the idea of “Specialness” had become in our culture.  Yes there are the outward signs, such as David McCullough Jr. proclaiming “You’re not special.  You are not exceptional” to graduating seniors which we’ve discussed here, but there are also more subtle signs, such as those that appear in Larissa MacFarquhar’s article.

Utah’s Emblem

What do you think a master of commerce like Christensen, famous for the 1997 book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma” which became a bible for organizations from Intel, to Microsoft, to the Pentagon, would have to do with our humble blog?  A hard-working Mormon who grew up poor in Salt Lake City and chose Brigham Young over Harvard, the Biz Wiz doesn’t seem to have any of the tell-tale signs of specialness.  (Remember that the emblem of Utah is the beehive, a colony where all workers are equal and must work for the good of the whole).  But that is exactly what helped Christensen come up with the key insight that would make him famous: disruption.

It goes like this.  At some point, no matter the industry, a cheaper, low-end product will come along that disrupts the high end (think cell-phone cameras and how they disrupted better quality digital cameras).  The disruptive technology product is always technically inferior than the market leader (VHS, Hyundai, or Christensen’s favorite example, rebar produced by mini steal mills) and sells for a lower profit margin.  Almost always, the higher-end product is happy to concede low-end business to these scrappy disruptors, as the giant integrated mills did to the mini mills; only later do the high-end companies realize that the disruptors have climbed up market and swallowed them up.  It might not seem like a revolutionary concept, but laying the argument out in print was enough to convince hundreds of top companies to set up scrappy, autonomous sub-shops on separate continents to “disrupt” themselves, rather than letting a competitor do so.

Christensen’s ideas extend to our personal lives as well.  He compares today’s companies’ tendency to outsource and forget the basics, to the way some of his students are being raised today.  While Christensen and his wife bought “two wrecks of houses” where his children learned to sheetrock, plaster and paint, he understands that may of his current (read Special!) Harvard Business School students would consider these skills unnecessary.

“Wanting their children to spend their extracurricular hours in the most profitable way, [parents] would pay for lessons and smart, enriching activities, and they would outsource the low-end, dumb tasks like mowing the lawn and mending clothes, and the children would grow up without knowing how to solve practical problems by themselves, or do something they didn’t enjoy or thought they weren’t going to be good at.”

Raise your hand if you don’t know how to sew on a button!  Or if you remember one of our most terrifying and gut-wrenching posts ever on this blog, Putting up a Shelf Using Winged Anchors!! (psycho music plays).

Of course none of this means that every parent must put his kid through shop class (that will come in a later post).  It does mean that as parents and teachers, we must encourage our kids to be disruptors: to not be precious about what they create: to value work done by the electrician as much as by the movie star, even though the electrician’s paid less.  If we raise our kids to know how a shoe is made, not only how to draw it and write poems about it, we remove so much fear of being incompetent, inadequate, or unspecial later in life.  Kids learn to be comfortable thinking outside the box when they understand what’s inside the box.  They will dare to disrupt their own thoughts of Specialness with seemingly “dumb” ideas that actually come from a practical place.  They will be like the tiny, independent company Apple sets up in Finland to take all the knowledge Apple has and create something simpler, easier, more practical and eventually market dominant.

Even in Christensen’s mistakes lie the proof of his theory of disruptions.  According to MacFarquhar, he was laughed at for thinking that the i-phone was doomed–too fancy for the cellphone market.  What he didn’t understand was that the i-phone wasn’t going to be disruptive to the cellphone market.  It was going to be disruptive to laptop computers.