When Disruptive Organizations Stop Being Disruptive

Remember when Starbucks was an exciting experience, or when shopping in Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s was a visual spectacle. More recently do you remember Under Armour coming out with nylon sports gear or Groupon offering 90% discounts on useful items?

Each business mentioned was Disruptive in their market space well before the term was even coined. I worked at Macy’s almost 30 yrs. ago straight out of graduate school, went thru their exec training program and was proud of our exciting visual merchandising. We spent big bucks and paid careful attention to the shopping experience as did our NY based rivals Bloomingdale’s. Shopping at the flagship store on 34th street was an experience for the senses. The flower show each Easter was magnificent as more than a million dollars of floral arrangements adorned the broadway side of the main floor. Fashion flourished in the NYC department stores in the mid 80’s. And then specialty and big box stores entered the fray and retail changed forever.

How about Starbucks in their early days. A $3 dollar coffee beverage served up by a barista calling out silly names to make your customized drink, or Groupon online providing unheard of deals on dinner, concerts, and washing detergent (and anything they could provide a discount coupon for).

At some point in a business cycle the disruptor matures and is disrupted.

For Under Armour it was simply Nike and Adidas waking up to the fact that someone had penetrated their space. Don’t feel bad for them or any of those mentioned as mature businesses. They are no longer disruptive in some shape or form, rather “established” and in most cases Successful.

Even in music, the disruptor at some point becomes part of the establishment, U2, the Clash, and Green Day are all bands that started out at the fringe and moved to the “establishment” side of music…maybe their fringe just became popular. I am sure none of these folks and hundreds of others ever imagined selling out football stadiums around the country or the world.

I am currently working for what many consider a Disruptor in the public education space. Charters are supposed to be alternative and creative and Success may be the most radical and bold of all charters. We also have amazing results, and as Bill Parcell’s the Hall of fame football coach has said: ” your as good as your record”. We have the best record ( or test results) in all of NYC.

So here is the dilemma. What happens when we are no longer at the fringe. Some might say we are at that inflection point now. Will we continue to make headway and push change when we are no longer the outlier but the standard  and acceptable example of great education? We have brought on a few blue chip execs from industry ( myself included) and a few from the political arena too. Some might say we are growing up.

It’s interesting that I was brought in to be the innovative HR change agent for a radical organization and I am doing a lot of conventional things. They are radical for the space we are in, but they are really just sensible practices tweaked to a non-profit environment.

Maybe your only a disruptor until others start following or copying you. I just don’t know.

Certainly this is a great problem to ponder.


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