A supply-and-demand guide to digital disruption.

In July 2015, during the championship round of the World Surf League’s J-Bay Open, in South Africa, a great white shark attacked Australian surfing star Mick Fanning. Right before the attack, Fanning said later, he had the eerie feeling that “something was behind me.”1Then he turned and saw the fin.

A digital-strategy framework

A digital-strategy framework
How to make sense of digital disruption.

Thankfully, Fanning was unharmed. But the incident reverberated in the surfing world, whose denizens face not only the danger of loss of limb or life from sharks—surfers account for nearly half of all shark victims—but also the uncomfortable, even terrifying feeling that can accompany unseen perils.

Just two years earlier, off the coast of Nazaré, Portugal, Brazilian surfer Carlos Burle rode what, unofficially, at least, ranks as the largest wave in history. He is a member of a small group of people who, backed by board shapers and other support personnel, tackle the planet’s biggest, most fearsome, and most impressive waves. Working in small teams, they are totally committed to riding them, testing the limits of human performance that extreme conditions offer. Instead of a threat of peril, they turn stormy seas into an opportunity for amazing human accomplishment.

These days, something of a mix of the fear of sharks and the thrill of big-wave surfing pervades the executive suites we visit, when the conversation turns to the threats and opportunities arising from digitization. The digitization of processes and interfaces is itself a source of worry. But the feeling of not knowing when, or from which direction, an effective attack on a business might come creates a whole different level of concern. News-making digital attackers now successfully disrupt existing business models—often far beyond the attackers’ national boundaries:

  • Simple (later bought by BBVA) took on big-cap banks without opening a single branch.
  • A DIY investment tool from Acorns shook up the financial-advisory business.
  • Snapchat got a jump on mainstream media by distributing content on a platform-as-a-service infrastructure.
  • Web and mobile-based map applications broke GPS companies’ hold on the personal navigation market.

No wonder many business leaders live in a heightened state of alert. Thanks to outsourced cloud infrastructure, mix-and-match technology components, and a steady flood of venture money, start-ups and established attackers can bite before their victims even see the fin. At the same time, the opportunities presented by digital disruption excite and allure. Forward-leaning companies are immersing themselves deeply in the world of the attackers, seeking to harness new technologies, and rethinking their business models—the better to catch and ride a disruptive wave of their own. But they are increasingly concerned that dealing with the shark they can see is not enough—others may lurk below the surface.