Until recently, the words disrupt, disruptive, disruption, and disruptor were negative words used to describe actions detrimental to perceived social order. For example:
Man in Elbow Room Disruption Fights Police, Damages Cruiser
Twelve protesters disrupted a speech by Condoleeza Rice at Norwich University in Vermont.
Iranian Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi has announced the arrest of several “election disruptors” in Tehran.
Ideally, chronically disruptive students should be placed in high-quality alternative education settings where they can receive long-term, intensive interventions
In the realm of science fiction, a disruptor is a weapon that can destroy a human being in a very unpleasant manner by disrupting cellular structure.
Now, however, thanks to Clayton Christensen, a consultant and an entrepreneur whose 1992 Harvard DBA dissertation describes an academic theory of “disruptive innovation,” the nouns disruption and disruptor have taken on a positive connotation, at least for some denizens of Silicon Valley:
Nowadays every corporate executive wants to disrupt; the word has become a mark of forward-thinking decisiveness—though it is sometimes attached to strategies that are more about cost-cutting than game-changing. And in Silicon Valley, belief in disruption has taken on a near religious tinge. All that disrupts is good; all that stands in disruption’s way (such as, say, San Francisco taxi companies or metropolitan daily newspapers) deserves to perish. –Justin Fox, “The Disruption Myth,” The Atlantic, October 2014.
In this context, disruption refers to the phenomenon of old technology being upstaged by newer technology. This new disruption names a situation in which a company that was the leader in a certain field finds itself losing money because another company, with newer technology, takes the lead away from them. An example given in the Atlantic article is what happened “when electronic cash registers went from 10 percent of the market in 1972 to 90 percent just four years later,” causing the National Cash Register Company to experience big losses.
Six years before Christensen’s dissertation, Dick Foster described the same phenomenon in conventional language in a book called Innovation: The Attacker’s Advantage.
In Business-speak, disruption is a new word for innovation. Innovators have become disruptors.
Spelling note: Both OED and M-W show the spelling disruptor as “an alternative spelling” of disrupter, but the -or ending seems to be more common. A Google search of “disrupter” returns about 429,000 hits to 1,020,000 for “disruptor.” The Ngram Viewer shows disrupter ahead until 1995, when disruptor pulls ahead.
For those readers looking for a synonym for innovation that doesn’t convey the negativity of disruption, here are some possibilities: