A New Theory For Disruption – The Paradigm Leap

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When the iPhone launched in 2007, it was both the best phone the world had ever seen, and Apple’s first phone. Dyson’s first ever Vacuum cleaner was the best ever vacuum ever made at launch. When Tony Faddell made Nest Lab’s first Thermostat, it was also by far the best in class.

From Tesla’s first ever car setting the standard for the entire car industry to Uber’s first Taxi business, to Amazon’s first attempt at Retail, to Donald Trump’s first role in Politics being the leader of the free world, it seems that the real step changes in how things are done come from those who’ve never done it before.

So have these companies succeeded changing the game despite a lack of experience, or because of it?

How can Tesla with less than 10 years car experience make vehicles that accelerate faster than any other road car ever known, beating cars more than 10 times the price, with half the capacity and despite 10 times more experience making cars?

A New Disruption Theory.

What these companies and people have done is leverage the power of not knowing better. While businesses make incremental improvements, learn from others and their experiences, best practices and the past, insurgent companies have no such baggage and muscle memory from the past. My new theory for disruption is based on companies ( who unlike Jean Marie Dru’s Disruption Theory) don’t go against category norms, they just base their approach on brand new thinking and change the parameters that fixed the design process.

My new disruption theory politely laughs in the face of Clayton Christensen’s globally renowned, but intrinsically flawed idea that Disruption is about companies who undermine legacy players based on a new technology at a lower price point. A theory based on selected data from a narrow window of time, from the world of data storage technology and digger design around 40 years ago. A theory that fails to explain the iPhone, Uber, Tesla, Airbnb, Flatscreen TV’s, Netflix, 3G and most of the world in which we live.

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Instead it’s a theory based on the design process.

Evolutionary Funnels.

If you ask a person to draw anything on anything with any implement, they quickly freeze. If you ask a graphic designer to design a logo and give them nothing, they can’t do anything. An architect with no brief or budget, a creative in an ad agency with no problem, it’s all the same. I’m not the first to say that any design process needs constraints or parameters.

Yet ask a group of people to draw a house and most homes look similar. We have in our heads a preconceived idea of what a home should look like. We make many assumptions that are not there. In a massively complex world we have to fight to make sense of, we can’t continually challenge everything. We don’t wake up in the morning unsure if we should accept gravity exists, it would be exhausting.

So design follows an iterative process based on a brief that is guided by assumptions to continually refine a solution or design to an optimal result. Let’s call this ( as it’s rather Darwinian) an evolutionary funnel.

Yet sometimes, the end result of that funnel is the best solution based on those criteria, but there is a better way to solve the same problem, but only when someone explores a solution with very different design assumptions.

I believe what we witness is the leap from a world of possibilities to another, a leap from from one paradigm to another, an optimal solution based on a whole new world of thinking. This is a paradigm leap, and it’s the essence of disruption.

The Paradigms of Personal Music.

Personal Cassette Players.

The first personal cassette players were massive, expensive, had terrible sound quality, skipped badly, offered awful battery life, and best of all, didn’t even have a rewind function. We had to turn a tape over and fast forward or do the spinny thing with a pencil.

Over a period of years, huge investments, many errors, commerical pressure and competition from other companies, everything got better.

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We got Dolby ( B, then C) , rechargeable batteries, rewind buttons, the size of the personal cassette player got little bigger than the cassette itself. The device got WAY cheaper. We even saw sports models with yellow plastic, people added radios, we got volume controls on the headphones. Life was good.

The improvements came fast then slow, it got to a point where the improvements got smaller, it was easy to reduce the size initially but once barely bigger than a cassette tape, improvements were marginal.

The CD Era

The very peak of Walkman design came as the the very worst personal CD player was made. It was huge, incredibly expensive, had awful battery life, it would skip all the time, the LCD display was tiny and had little information, it was the worst CD player ever, but still better than the Walkman.

We’d made a paradigm leap, gone from ever smaller, incremental design improvements towards an increasingly easy to envision optimal goal, to a whole new canvas for design, where the end result wasn’t clear.

Over time we now had new criteria to optimize, new design constraints and new problems to solve. We could now skip tracks, get digital sound, batteries lasted longer and the device was far thinner, yet skipping remained an issue until antishock was developed.

Notably all the criteria that once held back the Cassette player were different, the problems new, and the expertise needed wildly different, laser engineers replaced electromagnetic sensor experts, Dolby engineers replaced people who knew about caching digital memory. Designers who loved slow, high torque motors now needed to know about fast spinning, low torque designs.

The Worst MP3 Players.

As Discmans became marvelously cheap, remarkably thin, far better than every music device ever made, music moved from physical discs to data, someone had a new idea. What if the storage device wasn’t needed. What if we compressed music into MP3’s?

We jumped the paradigm of MP3 players, where once again all bets were off. New problems, no longer about battery power, but memory. Less about hardware design, more about software.

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The Streaming Age

And then again to Streaming, where no longer needed a musical player, just an app on Phone. We no longer needed to own music, we rented it, or never touched it.

The Wrong Assumptions

At every stage the new era demanded totally new assumptions, different thinking, and a step change in performance was noted. Often the dominant player changed, the incumbent built on the expertise of the past, the insurgent wasn’t bogged down by expertise.

It’s happened in many forms, the era of VHS, the era of DVD, to the era of streaming on demand.

The era of goods by horse, to goods by canal, to goods by railway and next largely by road.

In high jumping all records tended towards one optimal goal until the Fosbury Flop changed everything.

We’ve had it in money, shells, coins, notes, credit cards, and now Apple pay, bitcoin, Venmo and more.

We don’t live in one paradigm at a time.

But the most successful companies the world has ever seen, are typically the first in a new paradigm.

From Facebook to Uber, Amazon to eBay, Skype to WeWork, Tesla to Nest, Dyson to Trump, what happens when you challenge things from scratch?

So how would you build your business if you started it now?

Knowing what you know about consumer behaviors, new expectations, the new possibilities that technology affords and the accelerating pace of change?

I’m guessing many business would look rather different. Companies have good explanations for the way things are, it’s easy to see why startups have it easier, but do you think your customers care?

Are explanations or excuses enough, or must you adapt, rebuild or die?

Now not everything is changing, not all businesses face existential threats, but it’s certainly wise to be open to all change.

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