I hate that last one with the heat of a million ghost peppers.
My basic issue with the term "disruptive" is this: To be disruptive means that you are upsetting the normal way of things, that you're rewriting the rules, methods or expectations. Or to use Clayton Christensen's definition, that your product or service is moving from the bottom of the market to displace competitors at the top.
But how can you know for sure you're doing this? You have to look backward over a specific range of time and do real, comparative analysis about your systems. Within that analysis, you have to be absolutely certain that you can establish a cause and effect relationship between what you've done and the way things have become.
Yet, leaders repeatedly use "disruptive" or "disrupting" as a future-oriented descriptor. They pin it to their companies as a way of asserting the impact or position they think they will have, rather than verifying that that influence or rank really has come to fruition. It is, in essence, a transparent indication of what the business wants to be, not necessarily what the business has been or is.
And let's not forget, when everyone describes themselves as the desired ideal, that ideal loses weight. Because leaders all are saying they're achieving something awesome, the normalcy of the term makes it hollow. Instead of being inspired, others can hear "disruptive" and think, "Mmm-hmm. So...how exactly does that make you different again?"
There are additional issues with the term, too. In an article for NewYork Magazine Kevin Roose, for instance, points out that being a "disruptor" can be used as a threadbare defense against proper regulation (e.g., "How dare you create a new law to stop such incredible innovation from happening!").
I want "disruptive" to be a label others apply to me after they look objectively at my work. It should be an external, rare, evidence-based, comparative assertion of accomplishment, not an internal, common, emotion-based, egocentric assertion of intended identity.
But I know, I know. If you're not going to describe yourself as being a "disruptor," what can you say?
Talk about your vision.
One good option? Clearly answer that question of what you do differently or what you've changed, paired with your vision. For example, if you make electric cars, you could describe yourself as "...the only company in the world using x battery technology for greater reliability and a greener planet."
Talk about growth.
Alternately, give some evidence that shows your growth or level. For example, you could point out to potential investors that, five years ago, you sold x units and ranked tenth in your market, but that now, you've sold y units (up x percent) and have jumped to second. That is, prove with verifiable facts that you actually are following the course that Christensen said a disruptor follows.
Disruption isn't simply something you call yourself. It's a result, an effect. The more you describe how you are operating and achieving, the easier it will be for outsiders to judge for themselves whether you've changed your industry and taken the lead.