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The Difference Between Revolution and Disruption

2012 September 11

This week, Jack Dorsey, the celebrated founder of Twitter and Square, who is the probably the man most often compared to Steve Jobs in Silicon Valley, urged his audience to seek not disruption, but revolution.

More specifically, he said that “Revolution has value, revolution has purpose — a direction and leaders… We don’t want ‘disruption,’ where we just move things around. We want a direction. We want a purpose.”

It would be easy to dismiss Dorsey as just another guy who, finding himself rich, wants to be smart as well.  As Kafka noted about wise men, when they say “Go over,” they do not mean to an actual place, but some fabulous yonder that even they can’t designate, which doesn’t help us very much.  Nevertheless, I think he was on to something important.

The Innovation Matrix

I do not consider myself to be naturally creative or innovative.  I’m not adventurous.  I never thought I’d leave where I grew up on the Main Line of Philadelphia  and like nothing better than sticking close to home.

Nevertheless, what I lack in natural ability, I make up for in irresponsibility and a certain uneasiness with authority and convention.  That’s put me in some unusual places where I’ve had to do some unusual things.  So I’ve become an accidental innovator, more by inclination than by choice.

However, despite being an accidental innovator, I’ve tried to do it well and that’s led me to the matter of how to go about it.  I realized that it came down to two questions:  How well is the problem defined and who is best placed to solve it?  To answer those challenges I created the innovation matrix below:

The idea behind the matrix is that when we say “innovation,” we actually mean a variety of quite different things that need to be pursued in quite different ways.  I also think it can get us to the root of what Jack Dorsey’s motivations were for saying what he did.

Academics and Professionals

One of the things that gets lost in many innovation discussions is that large institutions often innovate quite well.  In fact, most of the innovations that we enjoy everyday are ones that come from just where you’d expect.

On the lower-left hand corner is the realm of academics.  It’s where there are no clearly defined problems or domains, but rather smart people who are given the freedom to choose their problems and collaborators.  For instance, Jon Kleinberg, who developed an algorithm similar to Google’s, continues to do basic research at Cornell.

Some large companies pursue basic research because you never know what can come of it. The transistor and information theory came out of Bell Labs.  Benoit Mandelbrot, whose work on chaos theory would have repercussions in fields as far-ranging as finance and video games, worked at IBM.  Social network theorist Duncan Watts works at Microsoft.

However, basic research is a long-term proposition and most companies don’t have the financial capacity or the inclination to pursue it.  The bulk of innovations come from the professionals working in the upper-right hand box, where both the problem and the domain are well defined.  Most new products, services and processes fall into this category.

The Disruptors

Probably the most misunderstood term in technology today is disruptive innovation. Usually, it is used to denote that which someone thinks is particularly clever, but in actuality it has a very specific definition.  Clayton Christensen coined the term in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma to describe innovations that cater to undefined markets.

The main thrust of Christensen’s argument was that good companies often fail not because they are poorly managed or do not put forth the effort to innovate, but rather they overlook important innovations because they are irrelevant to the problems they are in business to solve.

Customers demand sustaining innovations.  They want things to get better, faster and more effective.  Good companies seek to serve their customers and serve them well.  In time, they make their products so good that their customers are over-served, which leaves an opening for a disruptive innovator to come in and create a new type of market.

Dorsey’s own company, Twitter, disrupted e-mail in this way.  Ricoh and Canon toppled Xerox by using technology that was 20 years old.  Netflix and Google both tried to sell their innovations to the market leaders.  Kodak developed some of the first patents for digital cameras.

The incumbents were fully aware of the innovations that led to their demise; their downfall came from the fact that they hadn’t defined the problem being solved as one that was relevant to their business.

Revolutionary Breakthroughs

Having been in a revolution myself, I can attest that the distinctive feature is confusion. It’s very much like a night out in college, where you are constantly moving, trying to find your friends (and the party) and jumping on any tidbit of information or rumor that will get you to where you need to go (which is why social media is so powerful in revolutions).

Intellectual revolutions are very much the same in this way, which is why they belong in the in the upper-left box.  They happen when you are stuck, when you know what the problem is, but just can’t solve it.  As Thomas Kuhn argued in his classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, these types of problems require a paradigm shift.

The key to solving this type of problem is synthesizing across domains.  When Darwin came up with natural selection, he borrowed from geology and economics; when Einstein shocked the world and discovered relativity; he borrowed from Hume and when Watson and Crick unlocked the genetic code, they used insights from several different disciplines.

These were all clearly defined problems at the time, but the experts in the field had hit a wall.  I think that’s one reason that Dorsey urged us to pursue revolutions.  Another is that breakthroughs precede disruptions, often by decades.  However, and perhaps importantly, solving the really hard problems requires mindfulness.

The Dumbest Guy in the Room

So above all, I think Dorsey was urging us not to take the easy way out.  Revolutions are not for clever people, confident in their answers, but rather, as Richard Feynman put it in the video below, for confused apes who have burning questions.

When we are confused, we need to go to others for answers.  That takes modesty.  No matter what your accomplishments, you will no longer be successful or smart, but the dumbest guy in the room.  You’ll need to stretch yourself and that’s not comfortable or self-empowering, it’s painful and often humiliating.  Yet that is the way we move forward.

Jumping into the abyss and never quite knowing what will come of it or when we will get where we want to go, it’s hard not to feel diminished.  To suffer through it, we must have purpose and learn to be humble before a terribly confusing universe or, as one brilliantly bewildered man once said:

“Whereof one cannot speak, Thereof one must remain silent.”

– Greg

6 Responses leave one →
  1. September 11, 2012

    Nice post Greg,

    What Jack might implicitly be saying is to express dissatisfaction with the status quo through disruptive innovation. Always good to give you some form of direction.


  2. September 11, 2012

    Might be…



  3. September 12, 2012

    Greg, great video of Feynman.

    For the rest, was agriculture disruptive or revolutionary? was it an invention a discovery, an innovation?depends on the angle of analysis?

    How about the wheel? the domestication of the ox?

    to which extent did the politically correct atmosphere impose the use of disruption against the use of revolution in Christensen’s work?

    I look at it from an -anthropological?- point of view: will that change the way we live, and if yes for which benefits and which constraints/drawbacks? or will it improve the way we live? again for which and whose benefits and constraints.

    Are OGM revolutionary or disruptive? How about radio and television: in how many countries do you still have a ministry of information?


  4. September 12, 2012


    The matrix isn’t supposed to be used in that way. If you look historically, most big inventions have aspects of all. i.e.

    – Discovery of a phenomenon (basic research)
    – Major advances in the field (revolutionary breakthrough)
    – The technology is put to an expected use (disruptive innovation)
    – New improvements (sustaining innovation)

    So it gets very confusing once you try to classify historically. The matrix is meant to help innovate forward.

    – Greg

  5. Rich permalink
    September 16, 2012

    When basic research yields an invention…which was thought to have significant implications in a particular field, but ends up sidelines because it does lots of things well – but nothing excellent. It becomes a ‘solution looking for a problem’.
    I would be interested in your view as to which quadarant such an invention would be placed on your innovation matrix?

  6. September 16, 2012


    I’m not entirely sure I get what you’re describing, because basic research rarely directly leads to an invention. I think it’s helpful to look at an actual example, so let’s look at basic research into solid state physics in the 1940’s:

    The research itself would be in the lower left corner and eventually led to a breakthrough which manifested itself in the invention of the transistor. Nobody really knew what to do with the transistor (it was originally created to amplify telephone signals, but eventually come into widespread use. It was then developed further (sustaining innovation) into diodes and triodes, which led to the transistor radio (disruptive innovation).

    Interestingly, the cycle was then repeated, because the transistors themselves caused a very serious problem (the tyranny of numbers), which led to another breakthrough (the integrated circuit) which led to other disruptive technologies (i.e. pocket calculator).

    Today, we have lots of basic research that eventually leads to breakthroughs we have no idea what to do with (i.e. quantum teleportation, Higgs boson etc.). A lot of times you just have to wait and see what happens.

    So, if I get you right, what you’re describing would be most similar to disruptive innovation, when they domain is defined but the problem is not. As I wrote in my first post ( that usually suggests some kind of innovation lab/VC approach, but I think that you are speaking from the perspective of someone who has some kind of innovation and hopes that it could be a breakthrough in some field, which would imply an open innovation approach.

    I hope that answers your question.

    – Greg

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