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No, Everything Cool Isn't a Disruptive Innovation

03/05/2015 11:31 am ET | Updated May 05, 2015
Sam Edwards via Getty Images

Q: What is disruptive innovation?
A: Depends on who you ask.

The blogosphere is so stuffed with discussion about disruptive innovation that there's now a mobile app that replaces the overused word "disrupt" on every web page.

In a Wall Street Journal piece, Mark W. Johnson refocuses the disruptive conversation around the true meaning of disruptive innovation. Here's what he says that disruptive innovation is not: Being better than what currently exists, or being cooler, faster, based around a more advanced technology or any new technology at all.

Quoting his business partner Clayton Christensen, the architect of and the world's foremost authority on disruptive innovation, Johnson writes that disruptive innovation is simply one that "transforms a complicated, expensive product into one that is easier to use or is more affordable than the one most readily available." A disruptive product opens up a market that wasn't being served by offering a simpler, more accessible or more convenient option. "You know an innovation is disruptive when a new population has access to products and services that previously were only affordable for the few or the wealthy."

As a social entrepreneur focused on leveraging capitalism to accelerate social impact, I'm most interested in disruptive innovation as it applies to improving the world.

Clayton Christensen has a term for this sort of social change disruption: catalytic innovation. Christensen and several co-authors describe catalytic innovation this way in the Harvard Business Review:

Like disruptive innovations, which challenge industry incumbents by offering simpler, good-enough alternatives to an underserved group of customers, catalytic innovations can surpass the status quo by providing good-enough solutions to inadequately addressed social problems. Catalytic innovations are a subset of disruptive innovations, distinguished by their primary focus on social change, often on a national scale.

An example of this idea would be the MinuteClinic, which provides affordable walk-in diagnosis and treatment for common health problems, as well as vaccinations. By offering an alternative to doctors' offices, MinuteClinics provide important health services to a large, underserved population. Acquired by CVS, MinuteClinic has given rise to other healthcare related catalytic innovators like RediClinics, Take Care Health Systems and Wal-Mart's in-store clinics.

Another example would be a new model for vaccine development to address devastating epidemics of meningitis A that strike Africa and kill children within 48 hours. The vaccine, created by the World Health Organization and PATH by working across public and private sectors, has been revolutionary. "The Meningitis Vaccine Project brokered the intellectual capital, political will and technical know-how needed to create an affordable and effective vaccine," wrote PATH President and CEO Steve Davis for Stanford Social Innovation Review. Developed in record time and at one-tenth of the $500 million cost usually required to bring a new vaccine to market, the Meningitis Vaccine Project has yielded tremendous results: No cases of meningitis A among the more than 150 million Africans who have been vaccinated since 2010.

After years spent in the trenches of social causes, first as a philanthropist and then as a technologist and thinker figuring out how to give nonprofits more sustainable rocket fuel to pursue their critical work, I have seen how important it is to treat business for social responsibility with the same critical eye as one would apply to for-profit business ventures. As Christensen notes:

Too much of the money available to address social needs is used to maintain the status quo, because it is given to organizations that are wedded to their current solutions, delivery models, and recipients.

In his article 8 Social Enterprises Disrupting Start Up Culture, wherein my company Causecast is one of the eight enterprises named, social entrepreneur and verynice CEO Matthew Manos writes:

At the heart and soul of the Social Enterprise movement is legacy. We all have wildly different goals -- that is for sure -- but the one thing we are all connected by is wanting to leave this world a better place than how we found it. We care about the legacy that our business and our vision can leave behind -- something that has the ability to shape, disrupt, or destroy a familiar system. When you disrupt a familiar system, you change perspective -- you change the way a community can define themselves to inspire future innovation.

There is so much potential out there to dramatically move the needle on entrenched social issues. You have nonprofits engaged in vital work, but they have finite resources and are often missing key professional talent that would help them better manage the business functions of their enterprise and go much further with their goals. You've got volunteers with heart and skills who truly want to make a difference, but frequently don't know how to properly align their concern with the greatest needs. You've got corporate leaders who have aspirations of applying their business mission to impacting the world, but too often don't fully grasp, or underutilize, or misdirect their vast resources and potential to change the world.

Social change disruption, catalytic innovation -- whatever you want to call it -- the application of new ways of thinking about thorny issues that face our world is crucial to bridging the disconnect between different stakeholders, and forging a unified path. Innovation in social change is as important as innovation in business in making breakthroughs and succeeding. And because it's social change we're talking about, I'd argue that innovation is even more vital than in the business sphere, because inadequacies and inefficiencies in the channels around changing the world often mean the difference between life and death.

So to the nonprofits, companies, volunteers, philanthropists and everyone else invested in making this world a better place, let's all remember that continued evolution, innovation and, yes, disruption, are values we must live by if we're ever to make a dent in the challenges that face us.