You’ll Never See It Coming
You may have heard the old saw, “If you want to understand something try and change or reform it.” It’s true. You can never understand the intricacies and power of vested interests, tradition, inertia, fear and reluctance to adapt until you take on the challenge of changing an entrenched organization or a revered practice. Most people are not suited for the work of making change. They are enthusiastic at first and then ground down by the slowness of the process and the resistance from those that are affected by the changes.
I keep a card on my desk with a quote from Machiavelli:
“It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things; for the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order; this lukewarmness arising partly from the incredulity of mankind who does not truly believe in anything new until they actually have experience of it.”
I’ve never had an appetite for reform. I don’t have the patience for it. On the other hand, I’ve always been attracted to what Clayton Christensen at Harvard calls “disruptive innovation.” When an innovation transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo, it has created a disruptive innovation. It does not have to be perfect at first — just good enough. It does not have to be sophisticated or well-developed when it is introduced because, over time, the quality goes up and the price goes down.
Christensen states, “Initially, a disruptive innovation is formed in a niche market that may appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents, but eventually the new product or idea completely redefines the industry.”
He cites three well-known examples: the transistor radio, pocket calculator and mobile phone. All of them challenged products that had held a giant share of the market for years. The disruptors did not try to reform, improve or change the existing products — or go after existing markets. They simply introduced a better, new way that, initially, was just good enough but over time completely displaced the old options with higher quality and lower cost. Transistors did not only provide an option to expensive and inefficient tubes. They did not just create and serve a new market. They changed the nature of the whole industry. They changed the game.
Think about what Uber is doing to the value of taxi medallions in New York City; online colleges to brick-and-mortar universities; Google Maps to the paper map business; and Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britannica. Think about Amazon, Skype, Netflix, Facebook, eBay, and scores of other examples that have redefined the way we live.
I am in the conference business and Christensen has helped me question what we keep doing that has become complicated for our customers but is convenient for us. What has become more expensive without adding more value? What are the niches that appear to be inconsequential so we ignore them, but they will be the source of disruption? Have we ignored the market for transistors because we are so good at improving tubes?
I also wonder if we think that the Church is limited to steady improvement and immune from disruptive innovation? It is certainly resistant, but nothing escapes disruption in the end. I think that may be what we are seeing in thousands of small churches starting up in urban areas. A generation that is increasingly giving up cars and home ownership is far more interested in small, sustainable churches with a defined focus — not an overload of programs, real estate and staffing. They are not looking for the same things many Boomer churches were — better music, better facilities, more programs and better preaching. Boomers improved an existing model by making it more contemporary, but over time these large churches have become complicated and expensive.
The disruptive innovations of the next several years for all of us will not be reforms, improvements or updates. Those are what Christensen describes as “sustaining innovation” because they only replace old products with new. True disruptive innovations will not be mere reactions against the way things are done now. Because disruptions are almost always introduced by new entrants rather than dominant players, they will be the result of an outsider paying attention to what we have ignored. Most of us probably won’t see it coming because we are so focused on improving what we are doing for a well-defined market. At that point, the game will change.