“I love this product concept,” he gushed. “It’s so disruptive.”
I rolled my eyes. My boss, like most of the business world, labeled any new idea with that buzzword, which stubbornly refused to retire after 20 years of overuse.
The term “disruptive innovation” was coined back in 1995 by Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School. Noting that some smaller companies were able to knock larger ones off their market pedestals, Christensen proposed a sort of David-versus-Goliath business theory.
Christensen’s model helps explain why a company like Netflix, which once delivered DVDs by mail, displaced a giant like Blockbuster where customers could rent or buy movies on the spot. When Netflix began to stream video over the internet, Blockbuster ignored the threat to its client base and ultimately went bankrupt.
Now, the Harvard Business Review may be the last place you’d expect to find spiritual insight – but then again, a manger in an ancient Palestinian village may be the last place you’d expect to find the eternal God. And Christensen’s work actually affirms how disruptive the birth of Christ was.
A disruptive innovation starts in either a low-end or a new market, appealing to smaller, overlooked customers, or to those who aren’t considered possible customers in the first place. With the Christ child nestled in her womb, Mary exults in God’s mercy on those whom the world quickly dismisses:
He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty (Luke 1:51-53).
Disruptive innovations themselves “are initially considered inferior by most of (a market leader’s) customers,” Christensen points out. An impoverished infant in an occupied land would be disdained as a Savior by those whose who esteem earthly power and success.
Throughout his entire ministry, Jesus faced constant skepticism because of his humble origins; the apostle Nathaniel himself, on first hearing of Jesus, asked, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
Disrupters don’t follow standard protocol. “They often build business models that are very different from those of (their larger competitors),” Christensen notes. Jesus certainly did just that in the Beatitudes, when he challenged the world’s order by calling the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, and the persecuted “blessed” (Matthew 5:3-12, Luke 6:20-26). And in commanding his disciples to take up their crosses (Matthew 17:24, Luke 14:27) and to “wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14), he continued to shatter conventional expectations.
Although its name might suggest otherwise, a disruptive innovation can actually take quite a bit of time to succeed. “Most every innovation – disruptive or not – begins life as a small-scale experiment,” Christensen observed. “Disrupters tend to focus on getting the business model, rather than merely the product, just right.”
In his plan of salvation, God certainly did just that – and he was in no rush, either. Throughout the centuries, he worked patiently to build a covenantal relationship with Abraham and his descendants, preparing his people for their ultimate deliverance in Christ. As ancient kingdoms rose and fell, God mysteriously arranged for that perfect moment at which his Son would enter human history.
And ascending into heaven after his death and resurrection, Jesus – once an infant hidden in poverty – left the world beautifully and forever disrupted, with the commandment that we, empowered by his Spirit, do the same.
Gina Christian is a writer in Philadelphia and a member of St. William Parish.