Theory vs. Practice

Diagnosis is not the end, but the beginning of practice. Martin H. Fischer

› What makes "Disruptions" Successful?

The short answer is "time". If an innovation is really useful then everybody will eventually use it, one day. But well-known innovations may stay dormant during centuries – so long that people don't believe that doing such a thing is possible. Let's see how this happens, how different actors play in favor to (or against) disruptions, and why.

"An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come."
– Victor Hugo

Mail is a good example. We all know that it started with guys running from one point to another to deliver one single message. Then horses and boats transported letters, and we got railways the telegraph, telecopies and the Internet.

But very little among us know how much innovations have to wait until they are enforced by the authorities, with enough clout to leave the state of a mere curiosity. For example, in the 18th century, French king Louis XV replaced religious, academic, and other postal services by the Royal Post, a monopole given to the "Black Cabinet" to spy on supposedly ever conspirating people.

Electricity, seen in the sky and used by Thales (600 BC), a Greek philosopher, in experiments, had to wait until 1750 to find new insights with Benjamin Franklin, a largely self-taught researcher, 'Founding Fathers of the United States of America', Pennsylvania President, several times US Minister, slaves owner, and large-scale securities speculator (his face is on 100 dollar bills).

Soon after, Alessandro Volta invented the battery in 1800, and Michael Faraday invented the electric motor in 1821. Things accelerated then with Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison and many others who contributed to the "Second Industrial Revolution", where electricity left the status of a near-magical mysterious force.

The Forces that drive progess (or not) behind the Scenes

Companies say they will not invest in a technology until there is a market. And a market will not exist until people are exposed to this new technology. So, what makes the difference between success and failure?

Disruptive technologies have no choice but to outperform established offerings. They must be cheaper, smaller, simpler and have capabilities that appeal to the kind of customers who haven't already heavily invested existing offerings – or to this other kind of users who is desperate to do better (to get faster or cheaper results) because they evolve in a competitive market.

Sometimes, environmental conditions, such as an economic depression (cost savings), a technology shift (ubiquitous wireless networks), the shortage of a non-renewable resource (fossil energy), or a change in international regulations (finance, security, wars), will greatly accelerate adoption.

This is why governments finance lenders, infrastructures and new equipments: without the trillions invested by the taxpayer, these privileged private companies receiving constant funding and golden public contracts would have never been able to create those markets from scratch.

Then, as the conditions are met to let the disruptive technology deploy its distinctive advantages, the legacy technology is out of businesses: nobody wants it any more.

Innovations sometimes benefit from established infrastructures: voice over IP (VoIP) quickly gained momentum if you consider the pace at which regular telephone was deployed. But VoIP did not peak as a market due to the fact that it was predating Telcos because this established industry was able to change its underlying technology transparently for end-users.

Washing machines and disposable baby diapers have also replaced the old ways of doing things, but they were easy to copy so the distinctive advantage quickly vanished – along with the margins.

To be successful, innovation must be ground-breaking – and stay unique (as well as relevant) on the long term.

The very successful disruptive technologies grow by opening up new markets that quickly attract people because they redefine the rules. This only happens by offering relevance for end-users. This is where the performance of the technology has more weight than mere marketing and habits. Great technology speaks for itself. It inspires people. It opens new horizons. It gains ground.

Large organizations do not make bold changes. Switching to a disruptive technology is not in their interest because it displaces their well-established product-lines, trained staff and vendor circuits. BigCos usually wait until it is too late: to the point where the disruptive technology has caught up to them sufficiently to provide a viable alternative to the status quo.

And here is the opportunity for new market creators: not knowing where the innovating leader goes, others have no other choice but to follow blindly, imperfectly, and late – until the new way for doing this becomes an unavoidable standard, because of its wide use rather than by the decision of a committee.

What is the most significant innovation of all?

This is obvious: access to the benefits of knowledge (not just 'information') – without the hurdle and costs (time, money, availability, capabilities) of the learning curve. It takes 10 years to make a 'professional', 20 years for an 'expert', and 30 years for a 'master'... whatever the field.

One day, intelligent computers will provide us with this knowledge (which has little to do with the information taught in universities). In the meantime, there's another way: using products that transfer as many insights as possible transparently for users.

There are well-known examples: even race cars finally adopted the ABS for its abilities to react faster than humans could – even the most skilled ones. In the same vein, dual-clutch gearboxes help to keep cars running on the road by both providing unmatched comfort and speed as well as security (a legitimate concern with 500+ horse power gasoline-fueled engines).

To find their public, once developed and tested, these innovations must respond to a wide and serious gap. The rest is the unstoppable march of progress: we all want to drive like a 'pro' – without spending 10 years of our life on a circuit.