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Shake Well After Using

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By Emerson Schwartzkopf

Most of you make a living scouting, selling and shaping hard surfaces. I make mine with words. In any case, getting the job done right means taking plenty of care. Like you, I get troubled when people tend to make a botch of a job, whether through haste, laziness or ignorance. In the world of words, there are nouns and verbs that grate like pennies on a blackboard. These words are beyond stereotyping or name-calling or micro-aggressions or anything else that causes offense these days. It’s ugly when people use them – and completely miss the point of what they’re saying. Even the most-casual writer holds a particular pet peeve against one specific word. For me, it’s an easy choice. Disruption. It’s a term used in business jargon that seems to have an extended life, when others like synergy or holistic or paradigm have pretty much run out of gas. I first ran into it in the early 2000s and it keeps coming back. Until now, I’ve tried to encourage its demise by just ignoring it. Now, as we begin to rev up business and the general economy to a normal pace, I’d like to do my part to kill it. Forget that it sounds cool and can likely be found in popular TED Talks from important thought leaders. (Please ignore the sound of George Orwell’s head exploding.) Not only is disruption tired; it’s trying to pack a positive message into a negative charge. While using the dictionary is a clichéd trope from old grammar geezers like me, it’s worth noting the origins of disrupt. The Latin roots of the word describe the action of “breaking apart,” which transfers directly into the modern definition – to break, to split up, to rend asunder, to interrupt. Disrupt, in common usage, offers a negative tone. Public-transit service is disrupted when the buses quit running. A blithering blockhead nattering about language can easily disrupt your chain of thought. And it’s no accident that the good guys in the Star Trek universe use weapons called phasers, while bad guys like Klingons and Romulans use disruptors. At the turn of the 21st century, however, disrupt fell into the cool-kids’ bag of neat words and phrases. Maybe the stark idea of abrupt action sounded like just the thing to shake things up. Maybe the notions of change and innovation didn’t have the gut-punch effect. The first description of business strategy as disruption I remember clearly came from a U.S. company. It showed the company wasn’t going to stay in the shadow of the 20th century. You’ve probably heard of it, depending on your age. Kodak. All levels of corporate management – especially the CEO – waxed on about Kodak as the disruptive company of tomorrow. Everything, it seems, pointed to market disruption, with Kodak leading the way into the 2000s. Kodak actually invented the ultimate disruptive technology in photography – digital imaging – and held pioneering patents. In the early days of digital photography, they offered some top-notch equipment for consumers and professionals. Kodak’s problem was that, for all the emphasis on disruption, a major shake-up would affect the company’s historic cash generator: film sales, processing and printmaking. This mature, amortized segment of business literally created ROI of hundreds of dollars of profits from pennies in investment. Kodak could emphasize disruption and bet everything on digital. Or, it could talk big and hedge its actions to preserve those traditional film profits. Kodak chose to hedge. In a way, the choice ended up as one of the most-disruptive in American business … to Kodak. It lost its digital-photography edge; first to cheaper and more-advanced cameras, and then to smartphones. Film processing and printmaking became arguably the 21st century’s first buggy-whip industry. Customers went all-in for digital. Kodak didn’t, and ultimately imploded after bankruptcy in 2012. Kodak hung on to something profitable instead of striking a completely new path. Executives talked a lot and made disruption part of every PowerPoint presentation but couldn’t let go of something on borrowed time. Since then, I’ve seen other, less-dramatic examples of disruption in various markets, including hard surfaces. Plenty of people and companies want to be disruptive, but still operate more than 90% of their business in basically the same old way. Disruption is more than a phrase or an adverb. It’s shock. It’s changing the core operations of a business and, most likely, the product/service mix and flow. Disruption isn’t a matter of words. It’s a process of total commitment. Unless you’re all-in and putting everything on the line, please – PLEASE – put the word away. Prove your point with action.