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The Disruptor’s Dilemma

You've done it. You've invented the better mousetrap, the best thing since sliced bread, the next wheel - you've created an inexorable transformation that will suffuse society like electricity. Sparking innovation and spurning orthodoxy, your creation will foster new industry and enervate those too slow to change. Like a celestial creator, your work both gives and takes away - and it is this power that drives your confidence in purpose and inevitability of outcome.

Or maybe not. In fact, almost definitely not. You probably are clever, and you've come up with something special that at least some people want, or maybe even need. Your invention is novel in at least some regards, and your confidence and drive are key to its success. But, unless you're making the sorts of key discoveries tantamount to harnessing fire (such as really cracking cold fusion or finding that P=NP), your creation is not actually all that disruptive, at least in a general sense. And even if you have figured out something big, it will take time and resources for it to live up to its potential.

No matter how clever you are, incumbents have power - and that's not a (necessarily) bad thing. Innovators commonly fancy themselves as a Robin Hood to the decrepit and corrupt ways that predate them, but institutions exist for a reason. And, like biological entities, they defend themselves - which can be anything from entrenched politicians gerrymandering their districts to supportive neighborhoods holding a potluck fundraiser.

It is a simplification to equate innovation to disruption, much as it is to romanticize creation more generally. Innovation has value, but it also has details - and those details depend on and interact with the prior state of the world. That state can still be disrupted, but usually less dramatically than as envisioned by our modern mythology of capitalism and technology.

And so we arrive at the disruptor's dilemma - how does one balance necessary confidence with informed pragmatism? As an innovator, you inherently believe that (for what you are doing) you know better - but you still need to understand what came before, and why. And, in our modern capitalist (pseudo?)-technocracy, you also need to sell - to project and evangelize the benefits of your offering, while addressing (but usually minimizing) its deficiencies.

Is there a solution to this dilemma, one that encourages success while accepting reality (and ethics)? As with most hard problems, the solution is both situational and personal - but I'll suggest a general principle. Don't over-sell - expectations are key, and though you need to generate enough excitement to sell at least some folks, overshooting is dangerous. You'll end up with users you can’t possibly satisfy, and spoil the ecosystem for the users you could have served. Focus on those you can serve best - it will have the best results, and grow naturally over time.

Patience is a virtue - often extolled but rarely incentivized. It doesn't lessen your invention to take the time to implement and roll it out properly - in fact, quite the opposite. Just as your external posture is likely overselling, your competitors are probably less agile and innovative than they appear. And, while you do need resources to support your efforts, by not selling prematurely you actually save inefficient and even wasted effort on supporting adopters when you just aren't ready for them.

How do you still sell when you're not driving a hype train? As any proper engineer does - you underpromise and overdeliver. Manage expectations, deliver quality reliably, and ultimately your users will do your selling for you. You can and should generate excitement, just focused on what you're actually doing, not falsely projecting a global impact you've yet to achieve. And as a bonus, humility will temper your pride and balance your creation with the rest of the world. Even if you truly are a great disruptor, Rome wasn't built in a day - and the status quo exists for reasons that you can learn from.