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Bad Disruption, Good Disruption

The headlines were full of "disruption" last week, as Superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast. "Hurricane Sandy Disrupts Millions of Lives" read the headline on a New York Times slide show. Sandy "continues to disrupt New York entertainment industry," CBS News warned a day after the storm passed through. Subway, train, and air travel was disrupted, as was phone and cable service, and there was even concern that power outages would disrupt voting in today's election.

I followed the storm from the opposite coast, not far from Silicon Valley, and as I read the headlines and stared in astonishment at the photos I suddenly thought about the very different meaning "disruption" has in the worlds of business and technology. It's a meaning that's relatively new but highly influential and — unlike the Sandy-caused disruptions — almost always positive.

The "disruption" I refer to is often seen in combination forms such as "disruptive technology" and "disruptive innovation." "Disruptions" is the name of a weekly New York Times column about the good things technology brings to society. If you Google "disrupt," the first results won't be about Sandy but rather about TechCrunch Disrupt, a series of conferences sponsored by media conglomerate TechCrunch, which is owned by AOL. At the Disrupt conferences, tech stars give speeches, programmers compete in a "hackathon," and startup companies vie for $50,000 in prize money.

How did "disruption" become a good thing? It didn't start out that way. Historically, "disruption" has been a pejorative term: a disruptive pupil would be sent to the principal's office; stock-market disruptions may cause widespread panic. The word, which comes from Latin disrumpere, literally means "breaking apart"; dictionary synonyms include "disorder," "confusion," and "tumult."

Then, in 1995, a Harvard Business School professor, Clayton M. Christensen, published an article in the Harvard Business Review called "Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave." A disruptive technology, Christensen wrote, was cheap, simple, and convenient; it threatened established ("sustaining") companies that were focused on creating high-quality products. That article, and Christensen's 1997 book The Innovator's Dilemma, caught the attention of executives like Intel's Andy Grove and Apple's Steve Jobs, who saw in "disruptive innovation" both a threat and an opportunity to create new markets at the low end. "Everyone talks about disruption now," the technology writer George Gilder told Larissa MacFarquhar for a May 2012 profile of Christensen in the New Yorker. "Clayton inserted that word in the mind of every C.E.O. in technology."

The big companies paid attention to Christensen so they could avoid being disrupted. But the little companies saw disruption as their raison d'être. By 1999, the first dot-com boom was in full flower, and "disruption" was a byword. Digital currency? Online pet supplies? Free music sharing? Excitingly disruptive ideas, every one — and each one a spectacular failure. (Or maybe just 10 years ahead of its time.)

Today "disruption" is standard operating procedure. "Let's assist, not resist, disruption economy" reads the print-edition headline on a recent business-analysis story in the San Francisco Chronicle, which points to companies such as Airbnb (an alternative to hotels) and Uber (an alternative to taxis) as examples of businesses "designed to do an end-run around existing industry regulations — in much the same way the early disruption in telecom was driven by startups that played fast and loose with the rules, forcing regulatory change and eventually becoming the norm."

In fact, "disruption" — the word, if not the practice — has become so ubiquitous that it's already on the downslope to buzzword status. Earlier this year BetaBeat, The New York Observer's technology column, included "disruptive" in its list of "20 buzzwords that deserve to die." In September, The Atlantic Wire quizzed a panel of "tech-savvy editors and reporters" about the meaning of several jargon-ish phrases, including "disrupting the disruptors." "Someone horrible probably said that," ventured one respondent.

At least one tech writer sees "disruption" as something even more sinister than jargon. Paul Carr, who used to write for TechCrunch, last month attacked "the Cult of Disruption," which he disparaged as a "faddish Silicon Valley concept which essentially boils down to 'let us do whatever we want, otherwise we'll bully you on the Internet until you do'" — an attitude Carr connected to Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy.

Going too far? Possibly. But I take it as a sign that "disruption" is past its prime. If you've been thinking about putting it into your tagline or mission statement, you may just want to disrupt that thought.

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.