Wisdom of fairy tales

We all know the story about an emperor, who in his vanity was talked into wearing clothes that only the wise could see. While no grown up wanted to confess not seeing them for the fear of being considered stupid, it took a little child to remark that the emperor was in reality in his underwear.

We also all know the story about a little shepherd, who got bored alone with the sheep, and shouted for wolf while none was in sight to get the villagers come to him for company. Having repeated the trick twice, his calls for help, when the wolf actually appeared, fell to deaf ears and he ended up eaten.

In our lab we work with disruptions, a concept where the scholarly definition captures only a part of what is meant by the word in coffee table discussions. The current definition of disruption is an innovation, which upon entering a specific market has transformed that market, often having an impact of destroying the business of traditional firms in that market.

However, in looking only at such disruptions, which have already happened, we are still missing an elemental part: where does the power to disrupt come from? Is it about a specific technological development, an economic insight, a society level trend, all of the aforementioned combined or something completely else that enables a new idea to surpass and substitute the old? How do the seeds of disruption look like before blossoming into a disruption? In trying to answer that question and to create our own understanding about the phenomena underlying the buzzword, both of these old tales contain relevant seeds of wisdom.

There are such innovations, inventions, ideas that after an era of hype turn out to be little more than emperors’ new clothes. But more interestingly, there are also such newcomers, which at a first and second encounter seem to be like the non-existing wolf, lulling the old incumbents into a false feeling of safety only to be devoured a short while later.

One of the main themes with which we are working on in our lab, is creating the ability to somehow identify which of the old stories we should listen to when facing something new. We are bound to be found naked at some point, and equally likely to be eaten by a wolf in other occasions, however with each guestimation gone wrong, we will have learned a little more. And hopefully, with enough of these little learnings, we will at some point be better in not only recognizing the fertile seeds, but also in planting them in such soils where their growth is not weeded out as unwanted, but welcomed and admired.

Contact: milla.wiren@utu.fi

The writer works as Research Manager at the Laboratory of Business Disruption Research

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