Driven to Disruption: Reading James McQuivey’s Digital Disruption

PT Book Review continues its regular column in which we review, explicate, and excerpt books that we think will resonate with people in the business of publishing and media. 


The word “disruption” is hardly unfamiliar to those in the publishing industry. Almost every part of book business has been affected by disruption, particularly of the digital kind, from the advent and availability of ereaders to the struggle for bricks-and-mortar stores to keep up with online retailers. With several disruptive companies already in full swing and announcements of new startups every day, Forrester Research VP and Principal Analyst James McQuivey’s Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation (published, appropriately enough, by Amazon this year) seems like the ideal read for anyone in the book business.

Though this title  is not specific to book business, McQuivey repeats throughout that digital disruption will affect every industry. The agility of new electronic platforms and digital technology in general has not only accelerated the rate of change in every business sector, but also allows for individuals to wield  greater power. McQuivey cites entrepreneurs like Guy Cramer, who developed an online camouflage business, and Charles Teague with his weight loss program/community FitNow, as case studies demonstrating how one idea can create an entire business. He also goes so far as to say that future companies may be a part of a “disposable economy” where small teams of innovators work together on a certain project and disband after completion. This all embraces the lean startup mentality—but what is a company to do when it is not a startup? How can legacy publishers take advantage of this revolution?

Digital Disruption’s research shows that one of the obstacles in fostering innovation in a larger company is that the perception of what a company can achieve varies, depending on the company size and an employee’s position within the company. In companies of more than a thousand employees, people were less optimistic about the progress of their companies, with only 60% saying they are excited about the changes digital will bring to their respective company (compared to 70% in companies with less than 1,000 employees) and 18% saying their company policies and business practices enable them to adapt to the changes digital brings (compared to 43% in companies with less than 1,000 employees). There was also a big discrepancy between executives’ views of their companies’ digital future, in contrast to that of lower-level employees. For example, 70% of executives though their company would be more innovative than other companies in the same industry, while only 39% of lower level employees agreed.

McQuivey argues that any company can take advantage of the digital revolution, so long as it adopts a disruptive mindset. Within a larger corporation, McQuivey argues, executives should capitalize on employee enthusiasm/curiosity and put together small innovation teams to identify silos and break down boundaries between them and work within short development time frames. To illustrate, he primarily focuses on Disney’s development of its gaming division and how the extracurricular experimentation of employee and game developer Tim FitzRandolph led to the successful  app Where’s My Water?  By embracing FitzRandolph’s  interest in gaming, Disney was able to use assets already within its wheelhouse to experiment and eventually create a bestseller.

The problem, of course, is that not every company has the infrastructure of the House of Mouse, and while McQuivey broadly lays out the ways in which larger companies can look for opportunities to develop new disruptive products, there is not much evidence to support that examples like Disney would work across the board. Also, while McQuivey points out the power that new technologies and platforms affords the individual, he also does not delve much into the extreme competition a potentially over-crowded marketplace creates and the fact that speed-to-market isn’t just an advantage of the digital era—it’s become a necessity if a company wants to set itself apart from the masses of startups. If startups are commonplace in the marketplace, how do disruptive products proliferate, and are they meant to? And how should legacy companies react in the wake of competitors’ disruptive products? There is a world of possibility, perhaps, but much remains unanswered.