Disruptive Innovation

I’m drawn to buzzwords.  Particularly business buzzwords. They sometimes “muddy the water”, but “at the end of the day” these metaphors can help us “get all our ducks in a row." You might disagree, so let’s talk about this “elephant in the room."


Words can be fleeting, but buzzwords seem to be forever.  Here’s one that has been dominating the business scene in the last few years:  disruptive innovation.  So let’s talk.


Its genesis came from a college professor at Harvard.  And I find that ironic.  Tying the word “disruption” with “education” seems incongruous…and also like a description of my time in school.  Who knew that being disruptive would eventually be a good thing?  I was just ahead of my time.


Disruptive Innovation creates a new market by filling a void or by replacing something. When personal computers hit the scene, that caused a major disruption. Before that, a normal individual couldn’t afford a computer. They were a large mainframe device that only big companies or universities owned.  I remember touring businesses back in the ‘70s and every tour included a stop in their “computer room” where they bragged about how many miles of magnetic tape was contained there.  We were always told the tape could reach from Los Angeles to (insert your landmark).  I’m pretty sure they made that up.  Who measured those tapes?  That seemed like a poor use of personnel.  Disruptive innovation is responsible for a lot of great things like iPads, Netflix, and 3D Printing just to name a few.  Those are markets that didn’t exist before.


Disruptive innovation is different from sustaining innovation.  Sustaining innovation is the type of innovation that is an improvement to an existing item or service.  In simple terms, it’s making something better.  Compare your first cell phone to the one you have now.  Today’s mobile phone is obviously better than the one from ten years ago, that’s sustaining innovation.  Of course, this example doesn’t work if you’re still using your original mobile phone.  If your cell phone is rotary, I’m talking about you.


The odd thing is that sometimes these two types of innovation can hinder one another.  An existing business can be so consumed with making something better and keeping customers loyal that they forget new markets are emerging.  They fail to disrupt the marketplace by filling those new opportunities and needs.  Then the new disruptive innovator overtakes them, and in many cases, the sustaining innovator goes belly-up.


But here’s the point of this writing.  In many circles, there is a huge debate over the theory behind these types of innovations and a resulting argument whether a company, like Uber, is disruptive or sustaining.  Who cares?!  Why does it matter which category you’re in?  That’s like having an argument with your spouse and saying, “I didn’t say I was mad, I said I was angry”.  It doesn’t matter.  Other than historical documentation, it doesn’t matter whether your innovation is disruptive or sustaining.


Here’s what does matter.  You have to do both.  You have to be better at what you do (sustaining), and you have to be willing to do totally new things (disruptive).


And that’s the biggest reason I wrote my latest book “MORPH”.  (This is called shameless self-promotion.)  It’s a manual for change.  If you’re going to survive AND thrive during change, you’ve got to innovate both ways.  It’s the key to managing change.  To be honest, some change is easy.  If a long-lost relative left you a few million dollars you’d probably be okay with that change.  (By the way, a Nigerian Prince has given me ten million dollars so I know the feeling.)  But a lot of change is hard and my contention is the best way to deal with change is to create change.  I know this sounds like an oxymoron.  But look at those companies that were innovating in a disruptive AND sustaining fashion.  They thrived during changed because in many instances they created the change.  And they won.


Some of my colleagues in the motivational speaking world believe it’s only about attitude.  While that is step number one in the problem-solving process, it’s nothing without innovation.  If all you have is a good attitude you’ll be the happiest loser on the block.  Things will suck for you, but you’ll smile and keep charging ahead into one disaster after another.  As a kid, I rode horses nearly every day.  I had a dream of winning the Kentucky Derby.  I could have been an excellent jockey.  I was 4’11” and weighed 96 pounds as a sophomore in high school.  I have an old driver’s license to prove it.  In college my body discovered hormones.  I’m 6 foot and weigh 190 pounds now.  Despite all my positive attitude, I’ll never be a world-class jockey.  Not unless we start racing Clydesdales.  Attitude is the first thing you have to do, but it’s worthless without the ability to innovate.


Do you want to be more creative?  Do you want to innovate?  Here are a few ideas to incorporate into your life.


1.  Brainstorm.  This is a great idea tool.  The key is to not evaluate ideas while you’re generating them.  Negative thoughts and comments, and even positive evaluation can stifle the idea generation process. 


2.  Join up.  Don’t let your brain shut down.  Human interaction stimulates your creativity, so get involved with people.  The mind loves company.


3.  Adopt a questioning attitude.  Ask the question “Why?"  When we question what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, it forces us to evaluate.  And that improves the odds of finding more creative options. 


4.  Go into action.  With few exceptions, couch potatoes are not creative geniuses.  My experience is that creative people are active people.  This doesn’t mean you have to be a gym rat, but there is a connection between mental activity and physical activity. 


5.  Practice Comparison.  Compare what you do with what other successful and happy people do.  What positive activities and practices do they employ that you might incorporate into your lifestyle?  This is a great exercise for business as well.  Sometimes when doing this, businesses make a mistake…they only look inside their industry.  People and companies can often incorporate an idea from a very unlikely source. 


6.  Play games.  The phrase “use it or lose it” definitely applies to the mind.  There is an unlimited number of mental games you can buy, or you can just stick with something like the crossword puzzle or Sudoku. Try one and I’ll bet you’ll find one you like.  I personally am a fan of the Rubik’s Cube.  It forces you to deduce several steps of a problem.  And it’s also a petroleum-based product and burns nicely in the fireplace.  HA!  Games stimulate the brain.


7.  Hang out with creative people.  There’s definitely an osmosis effect when you’re with bright and inventive people.  The same is true when you’re with dull and boring folks.  I remember a management tip I got from one of my first bosses, “If you can’t change the people around you, then change the people around you.”  He was simply saying to spend less time with negative and unimaginative people.  Although this might be tough, they could be family.  Ughhh.


8.  Experience diversity.  Diversity of THOUGHT.  If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.   


9.  Use your sense of humor.  I believe there is a definite connection between your sense of creativity and your sense of humor.  I’m not saying one causes the other, I’m saying they enhance one another.  The funniest people I know are also incredibly creative. That’s because to create comedy you have to find a creative twist that most people don’t immediately see.  So funny things are creative things, and often the other way around too. 



To deal with change you need both disruptive innovation AND sustaining innovation.  I know they’re buzzwords, but innovation gives you “leverage."  If you’re gonna “hit a home run” and “build a better mousetrap,” then you’ve gotta “get your arms around” both disruptive and sustaining innovation so you can be more “client-centric."  And that’s a “win-win proposition."

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