Thoughts on day two of NRF’s BIG Show 2017

Jan 17, 2017

GDR Senior Consultant Will Seymour questions the big buzzword of day two of the NRF’s BIG Show 2017 – disruption

If you caught my impressions yesterday, you’ll see that the NRF Big Show began with innovation; continued to hype innovation; but then rolled up its sleeves and talked about some very traditional retail issues.

Day two: and the packed main stage auditorium reverberated with the word disruption. Disruption, disruption, disruption – we were assured – was what this event was all about. And on every stage and at every booth, we are indeed talking about disruption. All eyes are fixed on the dark forces swirling ahead. Forces which will almost certainly threaten us all, but which could also – possibly – keep us afloat.

But it struck me to hear this word used without hesitation in front of many thousands of people without anyone feeling the need to actually say what disrupters they were talking about. Quite apart from the fact that it felt like little more than lip service, it also got me thinking: what do we talk about when we talk about disruption?

The first thing to note is just how wide the scope of disruption is. It encompasses everything from AI to robotics, from challenger brands to big data. These things are all disruption. When a new thing comes along – say, drones – it is automatically disruption. Things that happened long ago that we still haven’t solved – like mobile – are disruption. Basically anything still to happen – self driving cars, cashless economies, the singularity – is disruption. In other words, disruption is already being used as a meaningless anodyne; a way of packaging up multitudinous forces of unimaginable change so that they fit into three familiar syllables.

That’s not all. Disruption has a very seductive consensus. Everyone agrees that disruption is important and exciting. So calling something that we really don’t understand ‘disruption’ is a way of invoking the consensus and reassuring ourselves that we know what it is. We can tell ourselves that these changes fit into a phenomenon that’s already compatible with our worldview – even when they blatantly aren’t – so we don’t have to look at them properly. It’s no different to striking through every future challenge with one honking great tick. Is that the best way to articulate all the different ways in which we might lose our businesses and livelihoods?

The word ‘disruption’ is also deeply euphemistic. It veils threat as change. It leaves a hell of a lot of room for misplaced optimism.

Listening to people taking about disruption, you’d be forgiven for thinking that people really, really want robots to steal their jobs, and automation to make them permanently unemployable, and the new economics of tech scalability to make their sons and daughters economically dependent on the state. Is that what they want? Of course not. In all honesty, what we want is stable growth under conditions we understand and can negotiate.

In reality, disruption is scary, and most incumbents will lose out. I don’t think that’s a controversial point of view, but we’re clearly not equipping ourselves with the language to deal with it. We might as well be browsing laurel leaf office chairs in mail order catalogues.

So next time you hear someone talk about disruption, listen very carefully to what they’re actually saying – because they might be engaging with a challenge of the future; but they might just be packaging those challenges into a euphemism that feels digestible. I worry that these people will wake up with upset stomachs in a few years’ time.

Do you think people are making a mistake when they appropriate the word disruption? Is our language helping us or is it hindering us? Please let me know. I sincerely welcome your views.

Will can be contacted on

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