Restorers vs. Disruptors: What the Bible Says about Innovation

As a book publisher, I spend a lot of time sitting at my desk. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a chair on the market that helps me to maintain the good posture that prevents back pain resulting from prolonged sitting. So, I cobbled one together by repurposing a few off-the-shelf products that, as far as I know, have not previously been used in the construction of an office chair. I have been using this invention as my primary office chair for the past six months.

My goal in making this chair certainly was not to “disrupt” the office chair market. I would have gladly purchased another existing chair had it met my needs.

Rather, my aim was to “restore” my back to proper alignment and comfort while sitting at my desk. Having experienced the restorative benefits of this invention, I am now working to commercialize it so more people can benefit from it.

This is what I call a “restorative” approach to innovation as opposed to a “disruptive” approach.

The Disruptive Approach

Many of today’s business professionals seem to be preoccupied with “disrupting” industries, being “progressive,” being contrarian, and generally living in opposition to the status quo. I recently found 1,561 search results for books on Amazon that included the keyword “disruptive,” most of which are business books. There are twice as many Google search results for the term “disruptive” than for the term “restorative.” This against-the-grain approach to innovation and life is deeply ingrained in the ethos of the Millennial Generation.

When I was in business school in New York City, I was led to believe that the only respectable businesses one could start these days were “disruptive” technology companies that required millions of dollars in venture capital funding (i.e. Facebook, Google, etc.). I had fallen into the trap of refusing to develop a business that I didn’t feel would be highly “disruptive” in a particular industry.

For me, the disruptive approach to innovation was driven by my ego and fear of starting an insignificant company. The result was futility as I continued to search for “the next big idea” before taking action on what God had already gifted and called me to do in business.

When the disruptive approach is used…

  • Work and ideas that don’t seem “creative” are despised.
  • Disruptors experience overwhelming fear of being “insignificant.”
  • Opportunities for collaboration are missed because the disruptor wants to take all the credit.
  • There is often a lack of massive action taken due to the disruptor feeling that his/her ideas are never significant enough.
  • Disruptors think less like “stewards” of God’s creation and more like sovereign “masters.”

The Myth of the Creative Class

One of the byproducts of the disruptive approach to innovation has been the emergence of a “Creative Class” in our culture. That is, many people have been led to believe that their work isn’t meaningful unless they are “knowledge workers” doing work that can be considered highly “creative” by the culture.

Ironically, humans can’t truly “create” anything. In order for something to be “created,” it must be brought into existence from out of nothing. Only God can do that. God’s Word reminds us that “we brought nothing into this world” (1 Tim. 6:7), so we can only repurpose what God has already made.

Even when God “formed” (Hebrew: yâtsar) man in his own image, he didn’t truly “create” (Hebrew: bârâʼ) man in the biblical sense because man was formed from the “dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7). So, it would be more biblically accurate to say “God formed man from the dust He created” than to say “God created man.”

Despite the idolization of human ingenuity and innovation, we can do nothing more than repurpose what God has already created. As King Solomon said,

History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. (Ecc. 1:9)

We are managers, formers, and reformers… not owners and creators. We are “stewards” of God’s Creation rather than “masters” of our own. As innovators, we have the opportunity and responsibility to discover, steward, and synergize the resources God has already created for us to manage, form, and reform.

The Restorative Approach

Innovation has been described as “two old ideas shaking hands for the first time.” As restorative innovators, we are called to facilitate these “handshakes” for the purpose of restoring that which humanity has lost.

Jesus said about His mission, “The son of man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). This mission of Jesus is highlighted in Luke 15 when he told three consecutive parables about a “lost sheep,” “lost coin,” and a “lost son” that each became found. He was more interested in restoration than revolution. Although, society had fallen so far off course that His coming felt like a radical revolution.

Rather than promoting something as altogether new, Jesus declared that His mission was to “seek and to save that which was lost” in order to reestablish the relationship that had been severed between God and humanity, a relationship as ancient as Creation itself. Rather than proclaiming His ideals as something radically new and progressive, Jesus aimed to restore something ancient, timeless, and transcendent beyond the world’s systems.

The restorative approach to innovation is not about promoting “the next big thing.” It’s not about trying to develop the next “disruptive” innovation or idea to overthrow competitors in your industry. Following Jesus’ example, we should aim to restore through our entrepreneurship and innovation rather than aiming merely to revolt against or conquer something.

Especially when we are aiming to correct something that has deviated so far away from meeting people’s needs effectively, our innovation as restorers may appear like we are doing something radical and revolutionary. However, don’t give in to society’s temptation to pursue change merely for the sake of change. What may appear to be “progress” may actually be a digression.

As restorers rather than disruptors, some innovators aim to provide remedies for human illnesses or illiteracy.

Some serve to fill gaps in customer service or to help save precious time that people are wasting in their daily lives.

Some focus on restoring human dignity where it seems to have been degraded.

Others promote the opportunity to experience greater happiness and fulfillment in life.

In every case, restorative innovators will restore what humanity is lacking or has lost altogether. Innovators who aim to be radicals and disruptors, pursuing change for the sake of pride, will continue contributing to the lack and lostness.

Discussion: What is an example of restorative innovation that you have seen in business?

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  • Deneen Troupe-Buitrago

    I love what you said about being restorative and that we do not create anything but actually re-purpose it. That is so true. I see what I am doing as that very thing. Linking Faith & Business for the professional/entrepreneurial woman is my business. Restoring what God meant for our work is exciting and I am glad to be on this adventure. Thank you for the podcast as it lets me know I am not alone in the mission to equip others for the marketplace.

    • Darren Shearer

      Keep up the great work, Deneen! We are indeed “stewards” of God’s Creation rather than “masters” of our own.

  • There is no inherent contradiction between being restorative and being disruptive. The problem is you are working with a common or colloquial definition of ‘disruptive’, rather than the precise definition of ‘disruptive innovation’ as coined by Clayton Christensen.

    Rather than explain in detail, I direct you to this page which provides a condensed textbook meaning (which will not be found in a dictionary). http://www.innovativedisruption.com/disruptive-innovation-model

    Disruptive innovations do not require VC funding (although they often get it), they are not necessarily breakthrough (although they can be), they don’t have to break things to win, they don’t have to be highly creative (in fact, ‘creative’ ideas are most often NOT disruptive, and more frequently fall into the category of ‘innovation for it’s own sake’), and you don’t have to be radical.

    It’s somewhat ironic that you argue your case in the context of Jesus. I would posit that Jesus was a quintessential disruptor, on par with Steve Jobs. He met people where they were, and addressed their real needs, which were often in conflict with the orthodoxy of the Jewish faith. He served those with unmet and under-served needs, and did so by focusing on the things they really needed to accomplish, rather than what conventional wisdom and Jewish laws dictated.

    A simple example was choosing to heal the sick on the Sabbath — something that was absolutely verboten by the rabbinical interpretation of Old Testament law. Or associating with tax collectors, prostitutes and other ‘sinners’ — the ones who most needed his message. Or his messages from the Sermon on the Mount — things that we almost take for granted today, but which would have been very controversial, unconventional and disruptive (in the dictionary sense) in his day. Jesus ‘innovated’ by focusing on the individual’s need for love, caring and grace, rather than the old view of religion as being about obedience to the law. This is not so different from what disruptive innovators do when they change the rules of the game by solving problems differently (whether with technology or without — it’s a common misperception that disruption requires advanced technology, yet Netflix disrupted Blockbuster with nothing more than the ‘advanced’ technology of the post office and a business model that was superior and more desirable to customers and unmatchable by Blockbuster).

    You should also know that 99% of those that claim to be disruptive are not. They are using the label like a pirate flag, and because they don’t understand what it really means, most fail. If they fail in the market, what exactly are they disrupting, other than their own livelihoods?

    There is nothing wrong with being the opposite of disruptive (sustaining) — the vast majority of innovations are sustaining, and they are essential to maximizing the benefit of the original disruption. There is also nothing wrong with being restorative. Every type of innovation has a time and place, and if you could be disruptive and restorative simultaneously, why wouldn’t you? It would make a lot of sense, be more profitable, and serve more people.

    • Darren Shearer

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I see the value in what you are saying, and I am familiar with Clayton Christensen’s thoughts on disruptive innovation. Though, as you pointed out, I am referring to the “common or colloquial definition of ‘disruptive'” rather than Christensen’s academic definition of the term. If, as you said, “99% of those that claim to be disruptive are not,” perhaps the general public does not agree with Christensen’s use of the term “disruptive”? At this point, it will be extremely difficult to redeem the term to realign it with a Biblical approach toward innovation. That’s why I believe the term “restorative” innovation is more appropriate.

      I would say that each of the examples from the life and ministry of Jesus you mentioned would be better described as examples of “restorative” innovation. “Disruption” is often a byproduct of “restorative” innovation, but it shouldn’t be the motivation behind it as it often seems to be in our next-big-thing-obsessed culture.

      • Christensen defined the term. No one else would use words ‘disruptive’ or ‘disruptive innovation’ in this way had he not published his theory 20 years ago. It’s fine to challenge the theory based on what it says and its merits, but we don’t all get to redefine it, anymore than I can say that 2+2=5.

        Christensen himself regrets (to a degree) using the word ‘disruptive’ to describe the model precisely because it has strong connotations independent of his theory, and that unfortunately leads to lots of headline writers misusing the term liberally, which has the effect of watering down meaning, since most won’t take the time to read the books, study the theory, or understand what it really means. The reality is, however, that it is a very important idea, and disruptive innovations, though less than 1% of all innovation, are responsibie for virtually all real economic growth (I did some detailed analysis to show this, which is published in my book).

        If you use the term incorrectly, you render it meaningless, but the concepts have tremendous value for business strategy, product planning, identifying which products are likely to succeed and fail, and making investments if applied correctly. Moreover, I think based on your essay, you would find disruptive innovation mostly a good thing, because it focuses on those who are left out, and identifying the highest value needs.

        I don’t subscribe to what the general public thinks, and if you are trying to promote the value of religious thinking, you don’t either. The general public is mostly incapable of understanding, let alone doing, differential calculus — should we change the mathematics on that basis? It hardly seems logical. Nor should we change any scientific or business theories based on popular misunderstanding.

        I’m not arguing with your use of the term restorative — that has merit as a different idea, but it is not in conflict with disruptive innovation in any way. And, there’s no need to align or realign the meaning of disruption to fit what you want to achieve. It’s simply a different concept. There are times when one is right, and times when the other is right — it depends on the nature of the problem being solved and why you’re doing it. The best of all worlds is when you can be both.

        One thing to consider is that those who approach innovation with the perspective of “next big thing obsession” are far less likely to be focused on the things that people are trying to get done (or if you have a grasp of business theories, the Job To Be Done), and as a result, far more likely to fail outright. That’s because disruptive innovation (again contrary to popular belief) is not about technology. If you are applying disruption as a strategy, then you need to be laser-focused on the JTBD to identify unmet needs, and on the the people who have those needs, and the best way to solve them for that audience. That approach almost guarantees value, and it results in a success rate that approaches 75% versus the more than 90% failure rate of most innovation. You might even call it restorative.

        • Darren Shearer

          For the reasons mentioned in my article above, I’m saying that, when innovating, the goal of being “restorative” must be the motivation; in a Biblical worldview, being “disruptive” should not be the innovator’s motivation. Beyond Christensen’s theory, the broader cultural trends of next-big-thing obsession, progressivism, liberalism, etc. have made the idea of being “disruptive” more palatable than in the 1980s when I was often labeled as a “disruptive” child. Back then, it wasn’t a good thing to be labeled “disruptive.” I’m sure Christensen was aware of these growing, disruption-oriented trends when he decided to use the term to label his theory. How else would it have become so popular?

          Yes, Christensen coined the term “disruptive innovation,” but I believe he settled on the word “disruptive” because disruptive attitudes are en vogue. I don’t think this is a good thing.

          • I think it’s an admirable goal to be restorative most of the time, but there are times when restoring is either not good enough, or the wrong thing to do. Moreover, we have free will, and motive for innovation cannot and should not be proscribed.

            If the motivation is solely focused on upsetting the apple cart, or causing harm, then clearly we could agree that this isn’t good (most of the time). Those activities would conform to the dictionary definition or common use of the word ‘disruptive’. On the other hand, when Jesus entered the temple in anger and overturned the tables of the money changers and drove out the merchants who had been allowed to work there by the rabbis (presumably to curry favor or earn revenues), he was acting expressly with the intent to disrupt. Given that this use of the temple was commonplace in his day, Jesus’ actions could well be described as an innovation. In order to purify and restore, he needed to disrupt.

            Most uses of the term disruptive (outside of innovation) have always been negative, although the connotation is implied by its associations. Disruptive children or disruptive behavior are generally seen as bad things. United Airlines in their initial comments about Dr. Dao called him disruptive and belligerent, with clear intent to portray him in a poor light. On the other hand, vascular disruptive agents are important in the treatment of cancer, and presumably that’s a good thing — it all depends what you’re trying to disrupt.

            Disruption simply means “the act of breaking regular flow or continuity; disturbance; a disorderly outburst or tumult; dislocation, especially an event
            resulting in dislocation or discontinuity”. Christensen was certainly aware of the word’s meaning, and that’s why he chose it to describe the phenomenon he was documenting (he didn’t create it — disruptive innovations have always existed; he was simply observing and recording the dynamics of how it happened).

            Disruptive innovations do interrupt the normal path of sustaining innovation, and that can have the effect of creating disorder in the marketplace and dislocation, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Almost always when disruption occurs, markets have become ossified, incumbents spend most of their time creating innovations that aren’t needed or that increase expense or only satisfy the needs of the top ends of the market. Disruption sets things on a new path, reducing costs, simplifying, catering to new markets, helping those at the bottom rungs — and yes, that can hurt the established market leaders, but I would argue that’s a good thing if it changes the basis of competition and wakes them up out of their complacent stupor.

            But understand also that Christensen is a deeply religious man. His intent was not to get people to go out and disrupt for disruption’s sake, nor should that be anyone’s goal. He was simply describing a recurring pattern of how under-resourced, under-capitalized tiny startups could consistently take on established market leaders who had brand recognition, thousands of employees, massive marketing budgets, global infrastructure and distribution channels, and win. Disruption is the classic David and Goliath story for business, and most of the time, the result is good for the same reasons.

            The last point to make is that Christensen regrets having labelled this phenomenon “disruptive” for exactly the reasons you document. It has become notorious for the wrong reasons, with the result being that most references you see to disruptive innovation are incorrect. That said, it is what it is, and the phenomenon needs a name to be able to study it and discuss it and know what we’re talking about. It doesn’t help to create divergent paths and alternative meanings, and there is no chance now to relabel it as something else.

            Most disruptive innovations are restorative — they reset the markets on a healthier path of innovation that helps more people. But, the direction that any innovation takes has positives and negatives associated with it dependent on how we as humans apply them. Opioids as pain medication were a useful innovation. Used to numb the senses and drop out of society, they have become powerfully negative in destroying lives and the social fabric of many communities across the country. Whether the telephone, tv, nuclear energy, automobiles, drugs, social media, there is scarcely a positive innovation that doesn’t have myriad negative uses and side effects, and that is due to people and how they use it, not the innovation per se.

            Similarly with the idea of disruptive innovation, it is how one applies the idea, not the idea, that is problematic. Understanding how market disruption happens, and creating disruptive innovations intentionally is generally a good thing, and the most likely way to succeed and grow as a business and change the world for the better. Doing that with a goal of being restorative is fantastic, but don’t denigrate the innovation because of how it’s labelled — target the behaviors that create the Enrons and Countrywide Financials and similar organizations that are based on lies and deception disguised as innovation.

          • Darren Shearer

            We agree that pure motivations are necessary for beneficial innovations. We agree that disruption is usually a prerequisite for the restoration of something good (e.g. health, justice, prosperity, etc.). Though, I would prefer to encourage people to innovate with the ultimate goal of being “restorative” rather than “disruptive.” Jesus’ ultimate goal in cleansing the temple was to “restore”… not to “disrupt.” As Steven Covey said, “Begin with the end in mind.” Innovators should begin with the goal of restoring something… not disrupting something.

          • Yes, we mostly agree, except for beginning with the goal of “restoring”. For some innovations, that’s a great goal, and it may serve a Christian outlook to think this way first, but in no way will it work as a primary goal for most innovation. As we moved from horses to cars, what was restored and how would the invention of the automobile ever have come about from restorative thinking? We would not have come up with the idea of 3D printing, or the telephone, or space travel, or television, or computers, or most of the things that are useful or interesting in today’s world.

            Here’s a secret that most people don’t realize about disruption though, which may serve your end. The primary causal factor enabling disruption is the rapid shift from scarcity to abundance. In fact, disruptive innovation cannot happen unless there is a scarcity problem to solve. While not necessarily restorative, looking for market scarcities where technology or a new business model can be applied to create relative abundance seems like a reasonable point of view to adopt as a healthy philosophy. Imagine how quickly we might solve hunger, or healthcare at reasonable cost for all, or the out-of-control cost of education, or community safety, or access to decent employment opportunities, or any major systemic problem if we all looked for scarcities that our talents or ideas could mitigate.

            The key is really to think about innovating with purpose — to solve problems — and not for its own sake.

          • Darren Shearer

            I’m not sure what Ford’s primary motivation was for inventing the automobile. That’s between him and God. I do know that God can redeem and use the innovations of even the most prideful and selfish people. Though, let’s imagine that Ford’s motivations were to lessen the abuse of working animals… to restore time lost due to long commutes on foot… to restore human connections across geographical boundaries. Do you see the difference between these starting points versus starting with “I’m going to be disruptive and disrupt the transportation industry!”?

            I’m saying that beginning with the ultimate goal of disrupting an industry, taking market share, etc. is not a Biblical approach. My article, “Is Competition in Business Christ-Like?”, also addresses this issue but in a different way. http://www.theologyofbusiness.com/capitalism-socialism-vs-great-commission-christians-compete-business/

          • Small point, but Ford did not invent the automobile. That was Karl Benz (Mercedes). Ford invented the moving assembly line, which improved productivity 10-fold and made cars affordable to the masses. Benz’ motivation for inventing the internal combustion engine and car to use it was to increase the utilization of his ironworks foundry — to create products that needed lots of steel. It is true that before Ford and Benz, others had been thinking about how to make travel easier + faster (for more than 100 years before the first car). Neither man set out to be either disruptive or restorative, and would not likely have created these products if that was their motivation.

            I see nothing wrong with making an observation that the transportation industry is broken and needs to be disrupted. That is not ‘unBiblical’ or a negative thing, unless you are misusing the term. For example, we have grown accepting of the high death and severe injury toll from accidents. In fact, car accidents are the leading cause of death for people under the age of 25 — it’s hard to believe we are so complacent about this. Cars are also among the leading polluters and contributors to climate issues, as well as consumers of non-renewable resources. And, there are now so many cars congesting the roads that the average commute time is 50% longer than in 1980 and almost double what it was in the early 1960s. And, with more time spent in the car comes increased rates of obesity, cholesterol, pain, and fatigue. Air travel stinks too, as we all know.

            These are problems that cannot be solved incrementally, or with a motivation to restore — it requires disruptive innovation, and probably several of them to fix.

            So, if you stick to the definition of what disruption is, and understand how to apply it (intentionally), then you have a chance of fixing this. I don’t think anyone would know how to start on a restorative solution that had a chance of seeing real change and real impact.

            Of course I see the difference in having an attitude of restoration, and for most innovation, it would better to have that as a baseline preference, but I think it is more about context and constraints you work within than about motivation. If you are repairing a chair, then your motivation of restoration makes sense. I don’t see how it works for innovation.

            Ultimately, I think your objection is to the word “disruptive”, not to what it means in the context of innovation.

          • Darren Shearer

            It’s true that I think the word greatly taints the concept, making it unhealthy for entrepreneurs to aim to be “disruptive innovators.”

            It sounds like your argument focuses on justifying a “disruptive” approach based on outcomes it creates that appear to be beneficial for society. It sounds like an “end-justifies-the-means” approach.

            There’s no question that “mad scientists” and “robber barons” have invented and commercialized things that have helped society. Though, such innovators are still both “mad” and “robbers”, qualities that are uncharacteristic of truly restorative innovators… but, in my opinion, can easily accompany those who have a disruptive motivation rather than a restorative motivation.

            Here’s a statement about Elon Musk that sounds more like a “restorative” approach than a “disruptive” approach: “Musk has stated that the goals of SolarCity, Tesla, and SpaceX revolve around his vision to change the world and humanity.[22] His goals include reducing global warming through sustainable energy production and consumption, and reducing the “risk of human extinction” by “making life multiplanetary”[23][24] by establishing a human colony on Mars.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elon_Musk

            I believe this approach will resonate better with the next generation than the previous one.

          • There is only one way to judge whether anything is good or bad, and that’s by the results it delivers. This is not an “ends justify the means” justification, which implies taint, but simply a fact.

            Real disruptive innovation, as described in Christensen’s model, is responsible for most forward progress, and almost all real economic growth (in the economic context — exclusive of inflation), increases in living standards (which are rapidly rising globally even if falling a little in the US), extended life spans, instantaneous global communications and more. Almost every innovation also brings with it the ability to be corrupted for less than good uses — online fraud, viruses, nuclear bombs, bio-weapons, hate-filled social media, broadcast television overwhelmed by “fake reality” to name some of the most egregious.

            In fact, most innovations can be used equally for good or evil, so that doesn’t give us a way to judge outcomes beyond the net forward progress disruption provides.

            As I noted at the very beginning, it’s fine for you to advocate for a philosophy of being restorative. Almost all disruptive innovations can be used that way, and minimally, if you are restoring something you are likely solving a real problem (which most failed innovations don’t do). But, it is false dichotomy to contrast restorative and disruptive to be in opposition.

            I would be careful though about ascribing motivations to Musk that are beyond fulfilling his own ego and personal interests. He is much more like Ford and Benz than a humanitarian with pure (or restorative) motives. It just happens that some of his personal interests correlate to things you want to label as restorative. Also, not everything Musk does is disruptive, although some of the less obvious things are. For example, Tesla isn’t — every car company will go electric, and GM and Mercedes are more likely to win that game in the long run (that is becoming more obvious over time, but it is also a prediction of disruption theory). On the other hand, his battery tech, solar roofing, charging walls and tunneled road systems all are (the opposite of what most people think).

            Ultimately, you are the only one who can control and direct your own motivations. That means you can’t stop others from creating things you don’t like, but on the plus side, you have the ability to apply innovations for good, no matter what the original motivation was. But no theory or idea should be rejected based on a poorly chosen descriptor, especially when it can help you achieve your objectives if used thoughtfully.

  • Simeon Young

    Love this podcast post. The idea of being “restorative” rather than “disruptive” is a great approach to innovation. Motive is everything. Keep up the good work!

    • Darren Shearer

      Indeed! Thanks, Simeon!

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