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Why being disruptive is a good thing

Joe Benesh is a senior architect with Shive-Hattery and President + CEO of the Ingenuity Company, a strategic planning, diagramming, framework development, and design thinking consulting firm.

The theory of disruptive innovation has been around since around 1995; coined by a Harvard Business Review article by Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor. The theory states that “firms that introduce rudimentary products can eventually overrun the established players by systematically improving the products until they meet the needs of mainstream customers.” (HBR, May 2015)

When I work with organizations, I notice there is dichotomy that seems to emerge more often than not. There is a general acknowledgement that a change in strategy is needed. But the next step is where is gets complicated; once the types of changes indicated are moved from strategies toward implementation, there is a pull to move back toward old systems, usually those already in place.

That makes sense from a human perspective; change is hard, and perhaps the existing way isn’t so bad. But look at the metrics – if growth or innovation has stopped, the time has come to do something new.

The word “disruptive” itself has a visceral impact. And please understand - only in very specific and rare instances would I advocate for an extreme shift in organizational strategy. If you look at Christensen’s definition, it is clear that the disruption he is referring to is incremental and iterative.

In most cases, new systems should build on old ones - most organizations don’t generally change what they are doing or how they do it wholesale. Working within existing frameworks and making the right changes will lead to a positive disruption, culminating in a shift in the product or service that the organization offers. This, in turn, provides a competitive advantage or market offering that has done the following:

  • Illustrated the obsolesence of the existing internal system or external offering
  • Reshaped or “disrupted” the marketplace (this can be internal or external) to respond the new product, process or service as the accepted standard bearer
  • Demonstrated to the customer base (or to internal employees) that the company is committed to innovation and/or providing relevant services or products

Understanding that the above outcomes lead to a greater chance of long-term success and growth, leadership can start to build confidence around small shifts from existing processes or strategies.

I have witnessed, on many occasions, the resistance to disruptive strategy first-hand. It , often manifests itself as skepticism, with questions like “How do you know this will work?” The short answer is that you don’t. That’s why phrases like “We will wait and see what happens” start to be introduced into the lexicon of the conversation about strategy. This is the pull-back talking; the aversion to risk rearing up and urging everyone to make the safe play.

There may be no way of knowing for sure that something will work, but success can be inherently embedded into the idea of adapting disruptive innovation into a strategy framework. Successfully addressing risk aversion starts by identifying small things to change, in small, manageable groups or segments. Then test these changes. If they seem to work, try the next set. Test those. Start to introduce and recognize interdependencies in the changes and build on those successes.

Successful strategic planning is evidenced by the positive change it creates, including overcoming adversity that you may find in trying to implement it. But being disruptive, a little at a time, constructs a sound and reasonable strategy, with clear objectives, built on data, that will allow your organization to outpace your competition.

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