Words you’re probably using wrong

I’m a stickler for the exact use of language. So it pains me when I hear important concepts bandied about. When words become buzzwords, they are used loosely and a lot of the original context for the term is lost. Here are some examples:

“Disruptive.” Often used to mean any big change in a market or industry. But not all transformational innovations are disruptive. In fact, the term was introduced by Clayton Christensen specifically to distinguish certain kinds of big changes from others, which he calls “sustaining” innovations:

Sustaining innovation is an innovation that brings to market a product or service that a company in the market could sell for higher margins to its best customers. In other words, sustaining innovation brings a better product into the market. Some sustaining innovations are simple, incremental, year-to-year improvements. Others are dramatic, breakthrough technologies the transition, in telecommunications, from analog to digital, and digital to optical….

The odds overwhelmingly favor the incumbent leaders of the industry in battles of sustaining innovation — whether they are simple, incremental innovations or breakthroughs.

A disruptive innovation brings to market a product not as good as the products in the current market, and so it cannot be sold to the mainstream customers. But it is simple and it is more affordable. It takes root in an undemanding portion of the market, then improves from that simple beginning to intercept with the needs of customers in the mainstream later.

I call that a disruptive innovation not because it’s a breakthrough from a technological sense, but instead of sustaining the trajectory of improvement that has been established in a market, it disrupts it and redefines it by bringing to the market something that is simpler.

“Pivot.” Often used to mean any change in business strategy or product. But not every change to a business plan is a pivot. In fact, the term was introduced by Eric Reis specifically to distinguish certain kinds of changes from others, which he calls “jumps”:

I want to introduce the concept of the pivot, the idea that successful startups change directions but stay grounded in what they’ve learned. They keep one foot in the past and place one foot in a new possible future…. By contrast, many unsuccessful startups simply jump outright from one vision to something completely different. These jumps are extremely risky, because they don’t leverage the validated learning about customers that came before.

“Refactoring.” Often used to mean any change made to code. But not every change to code is refactoring. The term names a specific type of change:

Refactoring is a disciplined technique for restructuring an existing body of code, altering its internal structure without changing its external behavior. Its heart is a series of small behavior preserving transformations. Each transformation (called a ‘refactoring’) does little, but a sequence of transformations can produce a significant restructuring. Since each refactoring is small, it’s less likely to go wrong. The system is also kept fully working after each small refactoring, reducing the chances that a system can get seriously broken during the restructuring.

Refactoring is not the same as redesigning, re-architecting, or rewriting, which can entail much more cost and risk.

I won’t get on your case if you use these words in their more general senses around me. But I make an effort to use them precisely, and you should too. The distinctions they make are too important to be lost. Otherwise you’ll end up founding a startup on a sustaining innovation, thinking you’re being “disruptive”; thrashing about from idea to idea, thinking that you’re “pivoting”; and rewriting your whole codebase from scratch thinking that you’re “refactoring”.

Words matter because concepts matter.


  1. And before anyone else mentions it, I'll say that technically I should have said “wrongly” or “incorrectly” in the title. I'm more of a stickler for precise use of concepts than for precision in grammar, when there's no potential for confusion.

  2. ram says:

    The title should be “Concepts frequently used incorrectly”. Precise employment of semantics, grammar and spelling minimizes the potential for confusion and the need for caveats and clarification.

  3. It's easy to do this if you use terms like these after hearing them in a conversation. You guess the meaning from context, then adopt it into your vocabulary. So a good lesson to learn from this post is if you find yourself using words and you don't know how you learned them, go to the source!

  4. DaveJ says:

    Here is a rule of thumb: any word that VCs start to use regularly with positive connotations, quickly becomes mis-used because entrepreneurs want to position their companies to meet VC demand (whether or not the use of the word is correct).

  5. Larry Salzman says:

    Thanks, Jason. During the past 18 months I have said that I've been managing a a change to the business model of my company. True, but not precise. The article on pivot was good–and makes it clear that what I was aiming for (and have largely accomplished) is a pivot on the customer segment. Maintaining solvency while shifting the company's orientation toward a new type of customer (enterpreise and B2B from consumer) demanded that we stay grounded in what we already knew and that has been a standard by which I have decided on the changes I've made. In my case, it wasn't a startup that needed to pivot–it was a 10 year old company whose customer segment was rapidly (very rapidly) shifting to Skype and other VoIP solutions for international telecom.

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