June 22, 2020 § 3 Comments

In a New York Times story, Taylor Branch, a historian of the civil rights era is quoted as saying: “A movement is different from a demonstration. It’s not automatic – it’s the opposite of automatic that a demonstration in the street is going to lead to a movement that engages enough people, and has a clear enough goal that it has a chance to become institutionalized, like the Voting Rights Act”.

He was discussing a social movement that challenged the orthodoxy. Demonstrations, even ones with a coherent and unified message were unlikely to persuade a majority. But, once the message took hold, it would be the new orthodoxy.

This has striking similarities with the concept of disruptive technology, a term coined by Clayton Christensen exactly a quarter century ago. Considerable detail is to be found in his very readable book Innovator’s Dilemma, but all you really need to know is in the (free!) 1995 Harvard Review paper by Bower and Christensen. A disruptive technology is one that initially is rejected by industry as not a good fit or too unreliable and costly. After success in niche applications, the appeal broadens. Eventually, it becomes the norm and usually completely displaces what preceded it. It is now the new orthodoxy in that technical space. Hence the term “disruptive”.

I lived through the development of one such technology in the oil and gas space. My company, Sperry Sun, had been a leader in developing the technology of horizontal drilling and the enabling technology of measurement while drilling. Early horizontal wells cost 2.7 times conventional wells of the same length. But they multiplied production in the Austin Chalk, by intersecting oil-bearing vertical fractures. That business segment put up with the teething pains for the value created. A U S Department of Energy survey showed that in a few years horizontal wells cost just 17% more and delivered 2 to 7 times the production. Eventually, it was the key enabler for the development of heavy oil in Canada and for the shale oil and gas boom in the US. A Shell Oil Company executive once confided in me that in the early going one needed permission to plan a horizontal well, but by the late 1990’s, one needed permission not to use horizontal wells. That pretty much defines a disruptive technology: looked at askance at first, becoming the norm afterwards.

Being a techy, I may be ill qualified to opine on matters that follow. But I propose to do so just the same! Caveat emptor! Ideas that upset and transform societal norms appear to be have underpinnings similar to those of disruptive technologies. Ideas initially appeal to just a minority of the populace. The appeal may be broader, but the only a minority may be undaunted by the enormity of the task of getting wide acceptance. In the civil rights era, it took decades for that to happen. Today, communication technology and especially the social media variant have changed the game. This may in part explain the rapid breadth of the movement for reform in policing. Or could be that the incendiary pile had grown with a succession of events and just needed the spark.

The descriptor Defund the Police is unfortunately worded if broad acceptance is the objective. A better one would possibly be Reform Policing. My take on what it means, or at least what I think it ought to mean, is for policing to emulate medicine in addressing both the symptom and the cause. Eliminating police departments is as absurd as outlawing doctors. But more emphasis ought to be placed on addressing the underlying causes for crime. This certainly already happens to different degrees in many jurisdictions but is clearly not the norm. Funding that ordinarily would simply go to enforcement, ought to be diverted in part to ameliorating the causes of crime.

The other layer, that of codifying behavior by individual police-persons to be more humane, while still protecting their own selves, is certainly needed as well. Leadership is coming from many quarters, including police officers. Houston’s police chief Art Acevedo was recently quoted as saying, “It’s not about dominating, it’s about winning hearts and minds.”, in a clear reference to one of President Trump’s comments on the subject.

Disruptive technology is one of the best-known terms in the lexicon of innovation. Here, disruption does not carry the plain English pejorative connotation. So also, should it not in the term Disruptive Ideas.

Vikram Rao

June 22, 2020


§ 3 Responses to DISRUPTIVE IDEAS

  • John C says:

    Very interesting analogy Vik. I like it.

  • Hamid Nabavi says:

    Sound analysis of recent events and the movement underway. Use of the term “disruptive innovation,” however, is discussed in some detail in the last chapter (Ch. 16) of Jill Lepore’s 2018 book “These Truths, a history of the United States” in not such a positive light.

    • rtecrtp says:

      I have not read that book. But, I do have the opinion that disruptive innovation ought to be a small portion of the portfolio of any company. While the payoff is potentially great, the majority of the portfolio ought to be more predictable on outcome and shorter on the cycle.

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