We hear a lot about how technology is enabling all types of disruptive change today, but have you thought about how much personal disruption we have experienced, and how much our lifestyles have changed because of it? Technology has reached the point of sophistication that innovation is happening on all fronts. It’s what we call “digital transformation.” The most tgransformative innovations are those that create entirely new market niches or segments that upend existing ones. The iPhone’s effect on home telephones is an excellent example. Landlines in the United States used to be nearly universal. Now only about 70 percent of homes have them. The telephone companies’ expensive equipment is reaching end of life, and with fewer subscribers, the traditional “switched” phone system simply won’t be able to pay for itself.
We do things differently now. We’ve gone mobile. We may ponder merchandise in a store, compare prices using a bar code scanner on our smartphone, and often decide to purchase the item from an on line provider, from right there in the store. We use an app to find the cheapest gas in our area, and what’s on special in the weekly ads from the grocery store.
We’ve also become more inclined to work from home, or, as Whitney Johnson describes it, “zig zag” our careers. She writes, “Disrupt Yourself,” the idea that we should be open to new opportunities to advance ourselves. She says that in the U.S. and many other developed, capitalist countries, the idea of a “company man” (or woman) with a job for life has long been outdated. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median job tenure for American workers age 25 or older has held steady at about five years since 1983, and for men it has slightly shortened. And, entrepreneurship is on the rise.
Volumes of research and evidence show how disruptive thinking improves the odds of success for products, companies, even countries. Disruption also works on a personal level, because you are your product when searching for a job, and your idea is your initial product when seeking funding. Zigzagging career paths is fairly common now, but the people who zigzag best do it purposefully.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes the Occupational Outlook Handbook which forecasts the growth and decline of U.S. occupations in the months ahead, and lists the fastest growing occupations. It may be time for you to zig or zag. But, there are some principles for self-disruption that can help you undertake this change thoughtfully, whether for you, or that business idea in the back of your mind.
Four Principles of Self-Disruption
1. Target a need that can be met more effectively.
A core principle of disruptive innovation is that customers control resource allocation and that they don’t buy products but instead “hire” them to fulfill a need. Disrupters look for needs that aren’t being met well. They play in markets where no one else is or wants to be. A classic example is Salesforce.com: A simple, inexpensive, cloud-based system—initially intended to service small and medium-size businesses that is now disrupting the leading providers of customer resource management software.
2. Identify your disruptive strengths.
When disruptive companies identify unmet needs, they make sure those needs match their distinctive strengths. They realize that market risk (trying and potentially failing at something new) is better than competitive risk (competing against entrenched, established players). As you look to disrupt yourself, don’t think just about what you do well, think about what you do well that most others can’t. Those are your disruptive strengths.
3. Step back or sideways in order to grow.
Just as a company’s survival depends on revenue growth, an individual’s well-being depends on learning and advancement. When organizations get too big, they stop exploring smaller, riskier but perhaps more lucrative markets because the resulting revenues won’t affect their bottom line enough. Personal growth often stalls and plateaus at a level of comfort. Disrupters avoid that problem by jumping to a new role, industry, or type of organization and putting themselves on an entirely different growth trajectory.
4. Let your strategy emerge.
Rather than performing detailed market analysis and developing a step-by-step plan to achieve a goal, disrupters are flexible. They take a step forward with a minimum viable product, gather feedback, and adapt accordingly. That’s a lean approach, and how the CabForward℠ Discovery process is all about. Find out what features users really want, and give them what they value. As Professor Amar Bhide at Columbia University has shown, 70% of all successful new businesses end up with a strategy different from the one they initially pursued. So, plan to experiment, pivot, change course and revise your plans, and then the new undertaking won’t be too disruptive to your personal life.
What if You Have a Disruptive Idea for a Business?
So, what if you have an idea for an app that is going to change all of our lives? Where do you start? Greg Satell, in his business article, How to Disrupt Yourself, points out that it’s not enough just to play the game anymore, the aim is alter it completely. When a company pursues growth in a new market rather than an established one, the odds of success are six times higher and the revenue potential 20 times greater. And, if the product fills a need consumers didn’t know they had, the success can be explosive.
That’s what makes disruptive innovation so dangerous and so interesting. It upends an existing order that seems to be working well. The reality is that incumbent firms tend to get better at things people care less about. Eventually, the basis of competition will change and old metrics of success become useless.
When you become a thriving business, you will have to change a lot of what made you that way. There will be no guarantee of success and the road forward will be uncertain, with no previous model to emulate. In his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clay Christensen points out that most often, change management efforts fail with respect to disruptive innovation (he gives one example of a success, but in that instance it almost killed the CEO who tried it).
Disruptive innovation doesn’t happen in the face of a threat, but when things are going great. Operations are profitable, the needs of the most demanding customers are being met and the business press applauds the company’s thoughtful and visionary leadership. Then comes along something like Google or Netflix and everything is turned upside down.
That’s what makes disruptive innovation so dangerous and so interesting. It upends an existing order that seems to be working well. The reality is that incumbent firms tend to get better at things people care less about. Eventually, the basis of competition will change, old metrics of success become useless, and we chalk up another case study for the TIDE discussion.