Decoding the power of disruptive innovation with Whitney Johnson
“Learning is not linear, but exponential: there is a cumulative and compounding effect. If you do something disruptive today, then the probability that you can be disruptive tomorrow increases. Momentum creates momentum.”
Recognized as one of the 50 leading business thinkers in the world (Thinkers50), Whitney Johnson is an expert on disruptive innovation and personal disruption. She is known for developing her proprietary framework and diagnostics after having co-founded the Disruptive Innovation Fund with Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen. This framework is complemented by a deep understanding of how executives create and destroy value and is codified in her critically acclaimed book Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work and in her latest book Build an “A” Team: Play To Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve.
In addition to being a speaker, author, and an advisor, Whitney is one of Marshall Goldsmith's original cohorts of 25 for the #100 Coaches Project and is a coach for Harvard Business School's Executive Education program.
You have written and spoken extensively on personal disruption. Tell us what it means in today’s business context.
Personal disruption is about applying the framework of disruptive innovation to an individual — in terms of how one takes ideas and makes them meaningful to one’s own self. Disruptive innovation has been a practice used by many organizations wherein they introduce a product considered inferior by the market leaders, which eventually leads to the market leader’s downfall. In the case of products and services, disruptive innovation usually starts small but over time, it becomes something like what Toyota did to General Motors, telephone did to the telegraph, or the car did to the horse and buggy. Personal disruption involves applying this practice to one’s career. With personal disruption, an individual starts at the bottom of a career ladder, climbs to the top of that same ladder, but then jumps to the bottom of a new ladder. It’s a work in progress and within an organization, it is the way one learns, leads, and repeats. And when one is willing to learn, lead and repeat, one starts over, becomes a beginner again, and that gives the innovative capacity.
In your book “Disrupt yourself”, you talk about the S-curve. What is the S-curve in the context of disruption and how is it used for personal disruption?
The S-curve was popularized by E.M. Rogers in his book Diffusion of Innovations in the year 1962. Through this, he was helping people to understand how quickly innovation can be adopted. Talking about this in an organizational context, when a product is introduced in a market, the product growth is usually slow until it reaches the tipping point ratio or knee of the “S” curve which is approximately 10-15 percent of market penetration. After this stage is the hyper growth which is the steep part of “S” or sleek back of the “S”. And then you reach saturation at 90 percent. The same principles of the S-curve apply to understand the psychology of disruption in the context of people. If you are trying something new, S-curve math says that initially, you are going to work hard without seeing much progress, which enables an individual to avoid discouragement. But as the individual puts in the efforts, he will accelerate up the curve and his confidence will soar. Then, as he approaches mastery and everything becomes easy, boredom kicks in and it’s time to jump to a new curve. In all this, one needs to be aware that one is at the top of the learning curve and a quick way to know this is by analyzing if one has been doing the same projects for more than a couple of years, or if there is a sense of monotony in the role. Once a person starts having such feelings and thoughts, it is time for that individual to do something new.
What are the variables that one can use to reach mastery along the S-curve and jump to a new curve?
One of the things that I talk about in my book Disrupt Yourself is that how one can successfully jump to a new curve after one gets to the top of a learning curve. There are seven steps or levels of change that individuals can achieve in order to do it successfully. What we found in our research was that these seven steps also allow individuals to go a long way through the learning curve. The first step is to take the right kind of risks. The second one is to play according to your distinctive strengths. The third is the willingness to embrace the constraints that you have. Fourth is battle entitlement, where you question things and identify things that can be done differently. Fifth is the willingness to step back and grow. Sixth is to recognize failure as part of personal disruption and to take the shame out of the equation because it’s not failure that affects disruption but the shame that we attached to failure. And seventh is the willingness to be driven by discovery.
In your book “Build an A team” you mention that “The goal is to approach human resources as raw materials rather than finished products, the same way you would handle other resources”. Tell us more about this.
I think when we hire people, we look for the gold standards or the top of the curve expertise. But in reality, we should hire at the low-end of the learning curve rather than hire for proficiency which is the high end of the curve. One of the reasons is that when you hire for potential, time is on your side. This individual is willing to work for you for about 3-4 years till the individual’s potential is realized. But when you hire someone for expertise, you get six months or year before they start getting bored. One of the ways that you can hire for potential and not for proficiency is to look for people who are in your company, recognize their potential, and build on their competencies. We usually believe that external sourcing will solve challenges, but what we don’t realize is that there is actual gold in our own teams — this gold is people who are willing to go above and beyond for us. These also include people who were a part of the workforce but they left the workforce to care for children or parents but are ready to come back. Then there are those who don’t necessarily have a degree or any credentials but are ‘do-it-yourself’ people who have learned a lot of things on their own and are very capable. These are the examples of hiring at the lower end of the curve and examples of disruption. When you are willing to do that, you are going to see actual returns on hiring and decision making.
Leaders often get people on board who share their visions, passions, and motivations – in a nutshell, a clone of themselves. In your book, you mention that if you are hiring a clone of yourself, you are not thinking about the S-curve. Tell us more about it.
The interesting thing about this is that every new hire is hired to do two jobs — the functional job and the emotional job (the emotional job comprises of things that we don’t want to do ourselves.) But hiring a clone breeds frustration because there is no space for the other person to flourish because the expectation is to work, think, and function in an already established manner and identical to the person who hires. It’s like tyranny. There is no headroom for the other person. There can also be a situation where the newly hired person is functionally better which might make one feel threatened. Leaders might feel that it is fun to have people like them but what leaders really need are the people who can do things that leaders don’t know how to do. I think it is only human to want to hire someone who makes us feel good about ourselves. But I think we have to be very careful of not doing it.
What does it really take to become an innovative leader that people want to work with?
I think it takes a leader who is willing to let people learn. It is about facilitating other’s learning forward to make it possible for them to, on your watch, know that they are going to be and give them the opportunity to boldly go where they have never gone before.
Leaders have to be the learning machines for other — for others to learn, lead, and repeat.
When leaders are willing to do that and when they have self-security and self-confidence to allow the people on their team to do that, they will become talent magnets and will enable their teams to be engaged, happy, and productive. And there will always be people who will be willing to work for them. That is how you become a great leader, a great boss and a boss that can lead a team and the organization to change.
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