Disruptive Innovation is like Rock and Roll


March 02, 2017

An interview with Craig Hatkoff and Vanity Fair Contributing Editor Lisa Robinson

When Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Craig Hatkoff first started the Disruptive Innovation Awards in 2010, he had been inspired by the body of work of Harvard Business School’s Professor Clay Christenson --who was considered by many, if not most, to be the world’s most influential business thinker --and his landmark 1997 book, "The Innovator's Dilemma," inspired the likes of Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos. The professor changed how the world thinks about innovation --explaining why great companies are designed to fail at world- changing innovation, and why two guys in a garage – (Bill Gates and Paul Allen or Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak) — can come up with the big breakthroughs decimating the industry leaders overnight.

Nearly 20 years later, Christensen’s theory of Disruptive Innovation is still the prevailing theory of change in the world of technology, and has begun to spread to many new domains.

Lisa Robinson: Craig, when you first started the Disruptive Innovation Awards with Professor Christensen, I don't think I fully understood the concept --of either the award or Disruptive Innovation. Without oversimplifying it, was it kind of "less is more?"

Craig Hatkoff: Less is more is part of it, but what blew my mind was that game-changing products and services don’t have to be perfect or even great. They just have to be simpler, cheaper, easier to use and be good enough. In a funny way disruptive innovation is kind of like rock & roll. And rock & roll is itself a disruptive innovation.

LR: Well, that certainly appealed to me....but explain more.

CH: Disruptive innovation is counter-intuitive. When it comes to innovation, most every major corporation tries to make their already perfectly good products better and better. And that’s where they fall into the trap. Their products become too good, too complicated and too expensive for the existing consumer. It also is q highly provocative paradox.

LR: What do you mean by that? Give me an example that relates to music.

CH: Consider the $15 transistor radios of the 1950’s and 60’s. They were pretty crappy but they were plenty good enough for a day at the beach, or to listen to the World Series while sitting in a classroom. The transistor radio, and later, the SONY Walkmans were inferior to some stereo systems, but the real job was to make music mobile and inexpensive.  These products  added a huge new population of consumers that the leading electronic companies weren’t even thinking about.  

Then, think about the mp3 file, which was initially rejected by the record industry that unwisely determined it wasn’t good enough for audiophiles—their perceived core consumer. But two more guys in a garage, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, put that myth to rest when they launched Napster-- which was shut down for copyright infringement.

LR: And the record industry started suing their customers....they would have been so much smarter to have co-opted it in the beginning, used it....

CH: And it turns out millions of tech-savvy college and high school kids, who couldn’t afford to buy the latest album, loved the idea of free file-sharing, even though it became illegal. But the horse was out of the barn.  It was clear to Steve Jobs that the mp3 was going to change the music business forever.  While Napster failed, Apple’s iTunes and the mp3 file dominate the music business.

LR: But there still are file-sharing sites where tons of users share music for free....

CH: By the beginning of the 2000s, the techtonic nature ofDisruptive innovation had spread across the globe like a tsunami after an earthquake.  Everyone was talking about disruption this and innovation that Clay Christensen himself became concerned that the term disruptive innovation was being over-used and things were getting a bit out of control.  And that’s where the Disruptive Innovation Awards come in.  Christensen’s original theory explains some innovations extremely well and others… not so much. There were lots of anomalies that Christensen wanted to better understand. It turns out that pop culture itself plays a huge role in successful disruption. 

LR: And whereas you started it in a small room above a restaurant, now it's huge...a really sexy highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival.

CH: We started it in 2010, with 65 people in a screening room. Today, 1,000 people attend the award ceremony that recognizes innovators who are disrupting the status quo. Each year the roster of honorees is an eclectic mix of people ranging from world famous notables to those the audience has never heard of before. These are people changing the world for the better. Disruptive innovation is not about incremental change; it celebrates radical change that leads to nothing short of revolution.

LR: Well, in addition to all the honorees in education, science, health, philanthropy, politics and high forms of the arts, we honored some pretty interesting musicians:  Keith Richards, Justin Bieber, Rick Rubin, Kanye West, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

CH: Keith's award was for open G tuning that uses only 5 strings and 3 notes instead of 6 strings and 5 notes. Justin Bieber was honored for being the first global superstar discovered on YouTube. Rick Rubin's was for starting the Def Jam hip hop label from his dorm room at NYU; Rick and Kanye were honored together for their groundbreaking work with the 808 drum kit synthesizer whose kick drum beat was the soul of hip-hop. And this past year, we honored Lin Manuel Miranda for bringing history and hip hop together and changing the world of Broadway with his extraordinary, Tony award-winning "Hamilton."

LR:  When it comes to music, there are so  many candidates for both "innovators" and "disruptors." But what you've always pointed out to me is that there are many ways of looking at something. And while I personally might not have immediately agreed with an honoree such as lightening rod Glenn Beck opposed to, say designer Norma Kamali - while I'm much more pro-the Bard Prison Initiative project than I am towards Twitter - there are reasons for recognizing people from all walks of life.

CH: This is why both Justin Bieber and Lin-Manuel Miranda can co-exist as Fellows in the Disruptor Foundation. And after all, to really understand disruption and innovation you only have to remember one thing.  It’s only rock & roll.

To be continued. 

Angela Brugioni