radical Insights.

Weekly Research and Commentary on the Future of Business and Technology.

Disruption is a State Change.

Sep 9, 2021

As part of our work at be radical, and specifically the research we are doing on “disruption” (whatever that term actually means — but that’s a story for another post), we have come to believe that most disruptions tend to be “state changes”: A different (better/cheaper/faster/more convenient) way to fulfill a customer need — with the underlying need not changing all that much over time.

Take the (in)famous Blockbuster example: The former leader in home entertainment, decimated by Netflix. Alas, all that changed was the medium: From VHS videotapes to DVDs, and now streaming — the underlying consumer need is still “watching a movie”. The same is true for Kodak (another one of those overused examples in the world of disruption), Nokia, fossil fuel vs renewable energy, combustion engines vs electric motors, horses and buggies vs the automobile, you-name-it.

True disruption, where an entirely new consumer need and behavior emerges, is rare. The change is much more of a continuation of existing behavior, served through a new/better mechanism — which in turn becomes “disruptive” to the incumbent’s business. Which brings up an important point: Rather than fixating on finding the new-new thing which completely upends a market as we know it, we are much better served deeply understanding our customer needs, and continuously asking ourselves how we better/best serve this need — considering all the changes in available technologies, the environment we operate in, and consumer behaviors at large.

P.S. Here is how this plays out right now: You might have seen that TikTok just overtook YouTube in terms of average watch time. TikTok’s much shorter average video length and their specific algorithm serving you content is certainly deeply disruptive to YouTube’s older, longer format as well as the way the YouTube app (both on the web and on mobile) works. But it still fulfills the very same human need for entertainment. TikTok did not invent a wholly new form of entertaining — the company rather piggy-backed on a larger trend toward shorter, in-the-moment, mobile-focussed interactions by their core demographic. A continuation of a trend which has been playing out for decades, brilliantly exploited by a company which saw it happen, and missed by one which is stuck in its old state.

Look out for state changes.