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Disruptive innovation strategies

Author's avatar By Expert commentator 10 Apr, 2013
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5 ways of encouraging Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation is no longer the exception, it’s becoming the rule as category incumbents are swept aside by new entrants. Just look at Blackberry, Blockbuster, Borders, Kodak and even Polaroid – all erstwhile “innovative” companies that somehow missed opportunities to leapfrog to the next big thing in subsequent innovation that is often digitally fuelled.


Memorex can be added to this infamous listing, once darling of the US stock market, when its innovative pipeline under a new CEO ran dry in a most spectacular way embarrassing its entire board.

This is by no way an isolated example. If we’re not proactively driving disruption in a systemic manner, we’ll eventually need to react to it or confront reality. Most Leaders however, aren’t prepared for the challenges of leading through such prolonged periods of uncertainty and the often accompanying pressures of personal anxieties.

Further, most organisations are set-up in an institutionalized manner, aimed to incentivise outlook and visibility, hence rewarding predictability and control, for example opposite criteria of what is required to lead during disruptive times.

In their publication, “the Innovator’s DNA”, Clayton Christensen et al list and analyse five specific behavioral patterns that characterize innovative Leaders: Associational thinking, Questioning, Observing, Networking and Experimenting. [ref. The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators by Clayton M. Christensen, Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen (Kindle Edition -12 Jul 2011)].

Christensen refers to these attributes as “discovery skills”. All are focused on the front-end of the innovation process related to identifying new opportunities.

In addition to these important idea-generating qualities, other skills are equally important when it comes to navigating the overall innovation process given the high level of ambiguity and uncertainty inherent when attempting to create necessary business breakthroughs.

The researchers found that five personal leadership competencies appear essential for sustainable results and success in such an environment, as increasingly frequently encountered today:

How can leaders encourage disruptive innovation

Here are 5 Personal Leadership Competencies that I see are important here.

  • 1. A Leapfrogging Mindset

Leading disruptive innovation requires a mindset focused on leapfrogging,creating or doing something radically new or different that produces a significant leap forward.

Leaders who possess the unyielding intention of creating breakthroughs give themselves a leg up by ensuring everything they do adds a new level of value to the market.

  • 2. Boundary Pushing

Pushing boundaries occurs at two levels. On the personal side, Leaders who do live abroad, work across different functions, find themselves surrounded with such diversity of talent, continually tend to expand their mindsets as well as creative problem solving abilities. At the strategic level, they continually push the limits of their teams, organizations, and partners.

  • 3. Data- Intuition Integration

Most Leaders want hard data when making important decisions. In times of disruption, robust data rarely exist. Leaders must use whatever information they can obtain from any and all sources inside and outside the organization but then be comfortable using their gut for the rest.

  • 4. Adaptive Planning

Leading disruptive innovation requires managing incredible levels of uncertainty. Adaptive planning is an approach where repetitive corrective action can lead to results. We learn from them, and then we modify assumptions and approaches accordingly. Whether these “results” are good or bad, they tend to get us closer to the breakthrough since they invariably result in new insights.

These new insights shape our future actions that are inevitably even better calibrated yet to the needs of the market. Markets tend to reject, “punish” the fittest, yet embracing “the most fitting”.

  • 5. Savoring Surprise

Disruptive innovation is a process laden with surprise – unexpected technological advancements, competitive moves, customer feedback, political and regulatory shifts, and other usually unforeseen events or strategic evolvement.

Most companies assume surprises should always be avoided. But Leaders who recognise that surprises are an inevitable part of the process (and a natural part of business, and life) are best able to actually use surprise as a strategic tool which makes them the more understated, more agile and fastest effective organizations to capitalise on unforeseen events.

Leaders who want to make a significant difference for themselves and their organizations need to embrace new skills in today’s increasingly disruptive competitive environment. While identifying, recognizing newly evolving behavioral patterns shaping these new behaviors are important, so are new mindsets that can free the innovative process towards these.

Leading disruptive innovation requires a new set of assumptions, many of which are rooted in a personal sense of humility, for example the recognition that we don’t (and can’t) have all the answers, and that disruptive innovation is rather about finding clarity through first “embracing”, then “restructuring” underlying components of uncertainty.

The Author of Disruptive Innovation examined these five personal leadership competencies based on anecdotal research related to the aforementioned company cases that collectively failed to renew themselves on a timely basis.

Again, this pointed at inadequate leadership qualities and skills or lack thereof. To be sure, a comparison was drawn with the work of Nicolai Kondratieff who already in the 1820’s looked at longer technological cycles perhaps pre-empting the need for innovation by way of economic product super cycles extending beyond forty to fifty years. Perhaps, only the electrical light bulb (produced by Philips) came close to satisfying the criteria.

Even in this historical case, innovative competition managed to penetrate price/performance criteria of the legendary light bulb (examples abound; Siemens Osram, GTE Sylvania to name but a few of the arguably more effective global competitors in terms of product innovation, strategic vision and management leadership qualities).

Moreover, Christensen et al had more of a breakthrough themselves when the Harvard Business Review agreed to publish a synopsis of their work on the subject which was well received by its readers prompting many constructive and favorable responses.

The article was initially published on October 8 2012 on Innovation Pioneers. 

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