Monday, July 24, 2017

The Disruption Fetish

This analysis by Brent Goldfarb is the best thing you'll read about Tesla this year, but the most important part may be his dismantling of the cult of the disruptor. Pay particularly close attention to the ways the fetishists ascribe nearly magical powers to disruption. This is about to be a major theme in the blog (and possibly in an upcoming book).

By conventional measures, Tesla is a small concern, but investors are placing their bets that it is a disruptor, a concept that has near-magical qualities in some business circles. The term comes from the work of the Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen’s Innovators’ Dilemma.

While the term is often used loosely to describe any exciting new company, disruption is actually defined fairly precisely in Christensen’s work (if with plenty of wiggle room). In theory, an existing firm can be disrupted if it complacently ignores the needs of its customers — or at least technological trends that threaten to make its market and technology positions obsolete.

A disruption theorist would explain Kodak’s downfall by arguing that Kodak ignored the threat posed by digital photography because it was too focused on the seemingly steady and solid profits produced by selling film. Likewise, Blockbuster ignored Netflix’s DVD-by-mail model and later streaming, leading to its bankruptcy. [As previously mentioned, I have a quibble with the omission of Redbox here, but it in no way undercuts Goldfarb's point. – MP]

Ignoring these innovations may have seemed sensible at first: Low-resolution digital photography did not appeal to Kodak’s customers, and Netflix started out by offering odd and old movies, i.e., not blockbusters. Why would Blockbuster bother to compete with that?

Slowly the quality of these offerings improved and neither Kodak nor Blockbuster were able to catch up. A textbook disruptive strategy targets the low end of the existing market. But sometimes disruption can come from above! Nokia as well as RIM (maker of the Blackberry) were unable to respond to the iPhone and Android one-two-punch. A disruption theory purist would insist that Kodak, Blockbuster, Nokia, or RIM might have navigated the technological transition — and thrived — if only they’d paid attention to the changing markets.

But a more plausible, if conventional, argument might be that transitions in those instances were not only improbable, but not even advisable. It would have been a herculean task to transform a chemical company specializing in the production of silver oxide film to a consumer electronics firm, fighting for attention in a low-margin industry.

Sometimes firms weather disruptive threats with little trouble. New biotechnologies that allow us to modify DNA led to a completely different drug discovery technology, eroding the drug discovery capabilities of large pharmaceuticals. However, the list of top pharma companies has barely changed in the past century. Their capabilities in shepherding drugs through the FDA process, as well as selling and marketing drugs — none of which biotech startups have easily replicated (Genentech notwithstanding).

The biotech startups still make money, but they typically end up licensing their technologies to, or are purchased outright by, big pharma. In 2000, online grocer Webvan set out to disrupt the bricks-and-mortar grocery business with a model that may have worked — if only 25 percent to 40 percent of groceries were purchased online. Sadly, that wasn’t the case then and still isn’t the case. As of 2016, about 5 percent of groceries were purchased online.

Nevertheless, the story soaked up $1 billion from public and private investors before failing. On-line ordering and delivery survivor Peapod eventually purchase by Giant, has taught us that online ordering complements bricks-and-mortar grocery stores, rather than substitutes for them. Most shoppers like to see, touch and feel their fruits and vegetables before purchasing them. Amazon deemed it wise to buy Whole Foods, as opposed to building an on-line fresh foods department independently.

The disruption fetish

A Google search for “disruption theory” produces almost the same amount of google hits as “competitive advantage.” Impressive for a theory that suffers from vagueness and has a poor record in explaining outcomes. My objection is not that incumbents never fail — that would be absurd. My point is that this rarely happens because managers are not paying attention to the competition.

Incumbents fail when their resources and capabilities become obsolete and they are unable to develop new capabilities themselves at a reasonable cost, or to buy these capabilities. That is, to believe in the disruptive potential of a company, it is necessary to also explain not only why the firm’s technology will be successful, but also why the incumbents cannot compete. Not superficially, but through careful consideration of these capabilities for both potential disruptors and incumbents.

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