Do You Really Want Disruptive Innovation?

What company wouldn’t want to come out with the next iPhone, online bookstore or Swiffer mop? In the right circumstances disruptive innovation can be a valid path to drive the long-term survival and growth of a mature organization. But Anthony Ferrier argues that most companies are not in that environment. They talk (a lot) about pursuing disruptive innovation, but the reality is that they don’t really want, or are able, to support it.

For the past 20-years disruptive innovation has been positioned as the holy grail of corporate leadership, in part driven by evangelists like Clayton Christensen. As the business world becomes more competitive, and the media is focused on new breakthrough products, the pressure on innovation leaders within established organizations to focus on “Big I” innovation is more intense than ever.

And at an initial glance, disruptive innovation makes sense. What company wouldn’t want to come out with the next iPhone, online bookstore or Swiffer mop? In the right circumstances (e.g. desperate, at the point of imminent collapse, new and powerful leadership, new competitors taking substantial market share, etc.) disruptive innovation can be a valid path to drive the long-term survival and growth of a mature organization.

Leaders reference changing market dynamics as mid-term concepts, rather than immediate burning needs that threaten the ongoing existence of their business

However, most companies that I work with are not in that environment. They are more stable, don’t have immediate drivers of change and the disruptors appearing on the competitive landscape lack scale and immediate financial impact. As I talk with leaders of these organizations they reference changing market dynamics, competitive landscape, and margin pressures as mid-term concepts, rather than immediate burning needs that threaten the ongoing existence of their business. My take on this is that they talk (a lot) about pursuing disruptive innovation, but the reality is that they don’t really want, or are able, to support it.

Pushing forward with disruptive innovation, in organizations with a vested interest in the status quo, requires extremely strong, well-coordinated and directly involved leadership, with the full backing of key internal and external stakeholders. Honestly, I rarely come across this when I am in the marketplace.

What I do see are leaders experiencing increasing competitive pressures, with a need for medium-term growth, better employee engagement and improved margins. They often set up activities that are focused on driving “Big I” thinking, but fail to establish the underlying groundwork that will allow the organization to execute on these new ideas. The result is that they generate significant front-end activity around these opportunities and challenges, but their efforts fail at the back-end. Essentially the lack of cultural support undermines the execution of new breakthrough ideas.

Now, before I go any further, let me just say that this thinking is very much determined on how you define disruptive innovationChristensen wrote a lot about this, and the definition of innovation seems to pop up at every conference I have attended in the past 5 years. However you perceive innovation is not an argument I am going to get into today, as we will never get an answer that we can all agree to.

To drive disruptive ideas or concepts organizations need to address cultural barriers first.

To drive disruptive ideas or concepts, organizations need to address cultural barriers first. In my opinion, the most efficient and quickest approach is to focus on building networks of key employees who “buy-in” to innovative thinking and want to support the development of new ideas, either directly or indirectly. This approach allows the organization to efficiently focus on those that want to drive innovative ideas, provides a ready pool of resources to support development, creates a level of permission for ideas to move forward, and helps build a network of champions for ideas when released. I have written extensively about these networks in the past.

So while breakthrough, disruptive innovation can be great for an organization under the right circumstances, it is important to first consider addressing cultural elements that will strongly influence the development of these ideas. Let’s be very realistic about the difficulties in changing a huge organization and come up with approaches that ensure the most success, in the most efficient way possible.

Do you agree or disagree with this approach? Let me know your thoughts?

By Anthony Ferrier

About the Author


Anthony is the CEO of Culturevate empowering client’s employees to execute ideas and inspire innovative cultures. The organization offers innovation training (developed in association with Professor Chris Labash Carnegie Mellon University , a SAAS-based portal of innovation materials, tools and templates, along with consulting focused on building employee engagement around innovation. Anthony is a widely read author, speaker and advisor to industry leaders at organizations such as Pfizer, U.S. Postal Service, The Department of Veterans Affairs, Johnson & Johnson, ADP and Fidelity. He previously led The BNY Mellon innovation program and has a Masters of Commerce (University of Sydney) and Bachelor of Economics (University of Newcastle).

Photo: Set of color safety pins attached to disrupt white paper from Shutterstock.com

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