The Metaphor of Disruptive Innovation

Is “disruptive innovation” a myth – in the rich sense used by folklorists as a culture’s sacred story?  Audrey Watters tells a beautiful and compelling truth about the cultural (particularly high tech culture) entanglement with the disruptive innovation story in a recent blog post.   Watters illustrates how the story about disruptive innovation connects with our deep collective millennial stories about the end of the world. To quote: “The structure to this sort of narrative is certainly a well-known and oft-told one in folklore — in tales of both a religious and secular sort. Doom. Suffering. Change. Then paradise.”  The piece suggests that the nature of the stories we already hold as a culture are what make the ideas of disruptive innovation seem so “unassailably” true to us, and yet, as is the case with such prophecies, when things don’t unfold as foretold they inevitably require revision (or perhaps as Watters notes, refinement) of the sort found in the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation’s recently published report on hybrid innovation and its role in education.

This kind of insight, this ability to see where the stories we tell ourselves in edtech and edreform fall down are what make critics like Watters invaluable, handing out uncomfortable truths that can make us wiser, more empathetic, more humble, and more thoughtful if we can hear them.
Niels Bohr told us that, “the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth. “ And while I don’t know that the truths we are considering here reach such heights of profundity, I think the idea of holding apparently conflicting truths at the same time applies in this case.  In that spirit, at the same time as considering disruptive innovation as a myth, I also like to consider it as a different literary element: a metaphor.
Metaphors are how we, as humans, explain one thing in terms of another, for example understanding a logical argument as a building: “That argument has a strong foundation,” or “That argument crumbled under my assault.”  By thinking about the characteristics of a building, we can see argument in a different way, maybe understand it a bit better, and perhaps improve our metacognition regarding logical arguments overall.
In many situations metaphor is not only useful, but essential.  Metaphor is how people without shared experience can communicate and how people with shared experience can make sense of it together.  So if you are an educator trying to communicate with another educator, you might use metaphor to describe something you see in the classroom using words like “authentic” or “student-centered” or “engaged”.
These words are now used (and over-used) technical terms of art, repeated until they have lost nearly all meaning, but imagine the first time they were used.  A day when a teacher saw a student deeply engrossed in struggling with a challenging project and the student wasn’t just going through the motions or striving for some external motivation like a prize or grade, but was lost in the problem for its own sake.  Perhaps the teacher saw this young mind lock on to the problem and wanted to share this small miracle with a colleague and used the word “engaged,” as in “the child engaged with this problem in the way an engine engages before pulling a car uphill.”   The colleagues can now extend this metaphor, to think about moving children to a position where they are able to function, as a machine moves into position in order to be able to work.  They can talk about the effort and work and fuel and other things required for that work to occur once engagement has taken place.  They can talk about the kinds of practices that foster frequent engagement.  The metaphor is useful to them.
Further, if both educators have seen this same phenomenon then the metaphor is grounded in shared experience making it more reliably accurate and meaningful in conveying a concept they previously had no good language for.  On the other hand, if the second person has never experienced (or perhaps seen but not recognized) the phenomenon things often go awry: based on their own experiences, their own metaphors and framings, they interpret the metaphor differently and believe they are talking about the same thing.  Now engagement can begin to mean things that might not have been implied originally – for instance students using technology being engrossed by the device might be spoken of using the exact same terms as students being engaged in the problem they are using the device to solve.  This is how terms that are useful in edreform and edtech quickly devolve into baggage-laden buzz words that come to stand for nearly the opposite of what was originally intended.
Aside from misappropriation, there is a second danger to using metaphor.  The power of metaphor is that it can be extended and thus becomes a tool for thinking about something new (as with the effort required after engagement and the positioning required before.)  The danger is that eventually all metaphors break. The map is not the territory, and the metaphor is not the thing it represents, but it can sometimes be difficult to see just where the metaphor morphs from a useful tool to an albatross around the neck preventing us from seeing clearly.
This is how I experience the idea of “disruptive innovation”.  I see it as a metaphor with strengths and weaknesses.  It allows Christensen and his colleagues to help us see business model evolution in a way we weren’t able to before and to take advantage of this new vision to plan for the future.  It also breaks down when extended too far or too literally and the word “disruptive” starts to be used for innovative or powerful sustaining innovations leading to a muddle of wanna-be edtech disruptors thinking they know what “disruption,”  “innovation,” “engagement,” and “learning” mean while in reality they are mistaking the map for the territory and grounding those metaphors in the wrong kinds of experiences.  Whether it is because as Watters says that Silicon Valley is drawn to the stories it already believes, “Many cultures (and Silicon Valley is, despite its embrace of science and technology, no different here) tell a story that predicts some sort of cataclysmic event(s) that will bring about a radical cultural (economic, political) transformation and, eventually, some sort of paradise,” or whether it is because they have inadequate experiences to ground these new insights meaningfully, when it comes to education Silicon Valley often (though not always) often presents as buzz-word-using tone-deaf exit-strategy-following salesmen.
And so I greet the new report on hybrid innovation with excitement and interest.  The story it tells about how disruptive innovation plays out in more complex scenarios (situations where non-consumption doesn’t exist) connects deeply with my own experiences leading high tech development teams in environments where we refused to make a choice between innovation and execution (similar to the choice between sustaining and disruptive innovation.)  The way old technology, goals, customers, needs had to be served while making modest gains as we shifted the underlying infrastructure to new technologies, methodologies, cultures, goals, and customers until suddenly we had something that served both but was a HUGE improvement for most – this I see resonating in the examples used by Christensen et al.  For me this is less about revisionist prophecy than about adding a new metaphor at the edges of the old, where it otherwise breaks down.
Myth as metaphor, disruption as metaphor, hybrid innovation as metaphor, metaphor as metaphor: these make it possible to see the truth of competing stories at the same time.  It is incumbent on us all – storytellers, audience, and jesters to understand how and when these stories help us achieve our quests and slay our dragons and when they lead us astray, mistaking the map for the territory, following some will o’ the wisp until we are lost in the bog with no exit strategy at the end of the rainbow.

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