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Don’t Disrupt, Evolve

The “Uber of this.” The “Netflix of that.” In today’s business circles, the companies that successfully pull off a disruptive innovation of their industry become almost instantly legendary. We study them in business school, hold them up as shining examples of forward progress, and brainstorm ways that our own organizations can think differently in order to operate differently.

As a result, disruptive innovation has become decidedly trendy. And as with all trends, it now faces a backlash. The pundits are declaring disruption dead. New studies claim to strike down the original evidence behind the theory. There is, according to the Atlantic, a “growing disjuncture between all this talk of disruption and its actual practice.”

In my opinion, this is manufactured debate created to sell magazines and incite clicks. Disruption isn’t dead. A new Netflix or Uber will come along this year or next and take its place in the annals of MBA case studies. But that’s not what I’m interested in. For every one of those unicorns, there are 100 companies evolving less dramatically, but more impactfully, than their revolutionary counterparts.

Evolution is the new disruptive innovation.

Work from homeIt doesn’t sound as sexy, I know. Evolution by definition is slow, incremental, the opposite of the “big bang” implied in disruptive innovation. But it’s also more diverse. Evolutionary innovation can happen via technology, culture, and infinite combinations thereof. It occurs through natural selection, as consumers and markets drive the success or failure of products and services, or from more defined inciting events – a “punctuated equilibrium” effect brought about by new leadership, product advancements, or technology breakthroughs.

Companies that innovate via evolution are just as successful, if not more so, than their disruptive counterparts. Twitter emerged from a podcast syndication service into a micro-blogging platform. Starbucks started out selling espresso makers. Nintendo began as a playing cards manufacturer in 18th century Japan. And Apple, of course, pivoted from niche PCs to a string of failed devices before refocusing on elegant, user-friendly consumer electronics. The iMac and iPod were not born in a vacuum.

This is the future of innovation. With the amount of available data and almost instant feedback loop between businesses and our customers, we have no excuse for not evolving. We should focus not on the One Big Idea, but on the million small things that make our offerings unique, different, and better than our competitors. Innovation happens via APIs and If This Then That (IFTTT). It grows through company culture that trusts and supports its employees. It thrives changing corporate environments that not only allow for the possibility of failure, but actively encourage it.

Disruption isn’t dead. The process has simply shifted from revolution to evolution. The businesses that succeed will not appear out of nowhere. They will reinvent themselves for survival.

A version of this article first appeared as a CEO Insight in Enterprise Networking Magazine.

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