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

  • http://fr.linkedin.com/in/ruchonfe/ Francois-Eudes Ruchon

    Great paper. The ability to execute an idea (being it disruptive or not for that matter) is probably the most difficult task companies are facing. Thanks for sharing.

  • Haydn Parry

    Anthony, great post!

    I thought I might share with you a few thoughts as someone
    who has experienced the powerful and inspiring effect a positively disruptive
    philosophy has on securing competitive excellence.

    Firstly, I would say that there is an underlying, almost
    desperate need, for senior managers to involve themselves in some form of
    initiative that might be termed disruptive, but making the bold move is the
    exception rather than the rule.

    However, as you correctly say, the key barrier preventing
    such an initiative from materialising is cultural and I would suggest stems
    from a failure in leadership – for the following reasons:

    To be disruptive you must embed the creativity element into
    the fabric of the corporate culture; creativity must be an integral part of
    everyone’s function.

    For this to happen and to succeed, there needs to be a
    supporting working environment that will nurture this creativity.

    People will only be innovative if they are encouraged to be
    so, are inspired to act and feel secure that when they do confront the status
    quo they will not be met by criticism, admonishment or even ridicule.

    Lastly, there must be mechanisms that exist where people
    believe that their idea(s) will be turned into reality.

    It takes a special kind of person to shoulder the
    responsibility of being disruptive; most senior managers prefer the comfort of
    the status quo, even mediocrity, to experiencing the pain and effort to design
    and produce a breakthrough product or service that may, ultimately, fail.

    Last year, I was tasked with building a technology team for a
    pioneering, greenfield product within financial services and experienced an established,
    corporate culture that I would describe as truly disruptive; it was
    phenomenally exciting to feel that you were part of something where a ‘no
    limitations’ mindset prevailed.

    So what was the difference? What underlying attributes contributed to the
    creation of a disruptive but highly productive, inspiring working environment?

    These three:

    · Outstanding leadership with a demonstrable ‘no fear’ management philosophy which
    embedded deep trust and belief in others;

    · A culture that was caring, collaborative but
    challenging, setting high standards that collectively inspired;

    · Finally, a ‘no compromise’ policy on recruitment,
    identifying and selecting only those who matched strict team based criteria
    complemented with high technical competence.

    What my experience last year helped to prove once more was
    that great people want great challenges together with the opportunity to
    contribute and make a real difference.

    I would say that the organisations that create this
    opportunity to disrupt will be those who will succeed in the longer term.

    Shy away from disruption, and you do so at your peril!

  • http://www.bia.ca Michael Stanleigh

    Thank you Anthony. I enjoyed the challenge to those who believe all organizations can be disruptive. Many consultants will sing the praises of disruptive innovation but have never worked at a senior corporate level. Managing the cutlural requirements has got to be the first priority. Re-shape the culture (which takes time) and disruptive innovation might be possible.

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