Time to retire the word ‘disrupt’

Updated: Jul 12, 2013 2:21 PM UTC

FORTUNE -- At a certain point -- somewhere on the way from sounding smart and buzzy to becoming an over-worn cliché -- a word loses its power. Disrupt is a good word we have mistreated terribly to the point it has become powerless. We’ve forgotten what it means, even as several smart people have written columns dedicated to reminding us about what it means, really, to disrupt an industry today.

I will make this simple (not smart) and short (not long): a disruption is a breaking apart, or renting asunder, or falling to pieces. A disruption is a bad, unsettling, untidy thing.

The more current use of the word, now warped into technobabble, was coined by Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School, whose book,
The Innovator’s Dilemma
, considers how various “disruptive innovations” have upended different industries. (The book is totemic to Silicon Valley cognoscenti.) Surely you know all this, but still it bears repeating: In Christensen’s book, disruption is -- if not bad -- certainly dangerous. The core of his argument is that companies fall victim to the blind spots in their business models and refuse to innovate in ways that would cannibalize their existing profit streams.

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Disruptive innovation is, by definition, not as “high-quality” as what existed before, what it's disrupting. IBM’s (ibm) mainframes were certainly better at computing than the first PCs (just as PCs had more processing power than the first netbooks or tablets); integrated steel mills could process more than mini-mills; and retail pharmacies offered better service than mail order. What each new model represented wasn’t an improvement on what came before it, but an entirely new approach, a -- ahem --break. And the break tore asunder the old way of doing things. See what I did there? No need to even use an already overused word.

Someone has already brilliantly considered how it is we ended up here: “Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy.” That’s George Orwell, in
Politics and the English Language
, an essay he published in 1946. True today as it was then.

My challenge for the people who attend Disrupt conferences (TechCrunch runs several) and talk about disrupting public transportation systems and send press releases about disruptive companies, is to consider what it is you are breaking, and how you are breaking it, and if in fact “disrupt” is the right word to use. Most of the time, it isn't.