Disruption vs. Innovation: Is There Really a Difference?


The last 5 years have been the hey-day of disruption. We’ve seen Airbnb turn hospitality on its head, Oscar rock the health insurance world, and Snapchat change the social media game forever.

But what makes what these brands have done any different from what you do with every product launch or new service you offer? Is it not just innovation – but on a bigger, further-reaching, more lucrative scale?

For sure, innovation can be successful and profitable, too, but disruption isn’t just about dollar signs or fancy new offerings. It’s about changing the very landscape it operates in.

Different Sides of the Same Coin

Think of it like this: A disruption is always an innovation – it’s new, different and never been done before. But an innovation? That’s not always a disruptor. In fact, very few ever are.

Simply put, innovation is change. Now, usually this change is a positive one – something that improves an already existing product or service, or one that makes things better, easier, more convenient or more affordable for the end user.

A good example is the Keurig. While not a game-changing disruption, the Keurig was certainly an innovative step up from the old Mr. Coffee of days old. Instead of being forced to brew a whole pot, risking 5 cups of precious black gold getting poured down the drain, caffeine lovers could use the Keurig to get a quick, one-cup fix. It was simple, effective and a big improvement in the convenience arena for most users.

But was it a disruptor? Definitely not.

A New Game

A disruptor literally changes the game. Depending on the industry, it may alter how business is done (think of how Uber changed the way transportation services are called, priced and even paid for), or it could change how customers in the industry think and behave (like how Snapchat makes users more apt to share private and sensitive photos, because they know they’ll disappear in just a matter of seconds.)

Basically, disruption takes a current market (or a technology or industry), and replaces it with a different one – usually a more efficient, effective and faster one.

There’s also a large amount of destruction involved in disruptions. In order to create a new landscape, the disruptor first has to tear down what already existed – making those products, services or even the entire industry it operates in a moot point.

It might be a hard pill to swallow for non-disruptors in the sector (and a costly one as well), but in the end, disruption usually means a better product or service on the whole. And if others can catch up, that’s good for everyone involved – especially the customer.

Are You Disrupting or Innovating?

Both disruptions and innovations can propel your business forward, but if you really want to make an impact on the marketplace (and eliminate any competition), disruption is the only way to go. Want to make sure you don’t fall victim to unforeseen disruptors in your industry? Check out my last post on protecting yourself from disruption – and becoming a disruptor yourself.