It is unrealistic to expect upside down disruptive innovation in any business. But the absence of disruptive thinking may be dangerous. Both things are not the same.
Disruptive thinking requires a degree of critical thinking, a willingness to challenge the status quo, to challenge default positions. It needs some discipline in the kind of questions you ask, how you reframe problems and how you avoid mind traps that will always show that there is nothing wrong with carrying on doing things as before, particularly if this is successful.
The good news is that both disruptive thinking and critical thinking can be taught. They can be injected in the organization even when this is a ‘traditional’ and perhaps conservative one. When people experiment with some disruptive ideas, they can see the benefits. Often, this is the first pass to getting out of an impasse, a fixed, ‘more of the same’ way of doing things. This is what my team does with our Disruptive Ideas Accelerator. It injects the thinking and facilitates the experiments.
Asking an organization for total disruptive innovation is unrealistic and not very serious. Expecting some disruptive and critical thinking to be injected, is very realistic, very healthy and a leadership imperative today.
Many conferences and events under the banner of Disruptive Innovation, end up with a parade of speakers telling you about Skype (as if you did not know) and then anything that looks like an example of something that turned the market upside down. This is all very well, and perhaps a good learning about the topic. However, not many people in those parades are able to answer the question, ‘so what do I have to do in my organization to get in that league, or even to change gears towards that kind of thinking?’
Most of the answers are behavioural: what you need to do differently, what questions you need to ask. There are also safe experiments that one can try. But Critical Thinking needs to be installed first. If there were pills to induce Critical Thinking they should be put in the water supply of our companies. Unfortunately we are not there yet.
The alternative to organizational status quo is not disruptive innovation. It is Critical Thinking, Disruptive Thinking and Leadership who is forward thinking and courageous enough to experiment.
There’s something to keep in mind when trying to create a disruptive change: Most such attempts fail, and when one does work, things usually get worse before they get better. The old way has had some time to mature, and is probably now as good as it is going to get; the new way is going to require lots of learning and tweaking before it can match, and perhaps surpass, the performance of the old way.
So you’re not going to see much disruptive thinking in an impatient organization that punishes failure or one that looks only at short-term results. And it’s important to find ways to explore the new idea, without betting more than the organization can afford to lose.
One of the things that new students learn in artificial intelligence courses (or used to learn) is the idea of “hill-climbing”. Suppose you’re in unmapped terrain and want to get to the highest ground possible. All you can see is your immediate surroundings. So you figure out which direction is (locally) uphill, and then you take a step in that direction. Keep doing this and you will get to the top of some hill. At this point, a step in any direction makes things worse.
But this is only the top of some particular hill. There may be much higher hills around, but you can’t see them. The hill you have climbed depends on the place where you happen to have started. If somehow you can get a more global view of the terrain, you may be able to spot a mountain off to the southwest, and you may be able to see the path from here to there. If you can do that, it is worth going downhill for a while in order to reach this much better place.
But if you’re in a group, you have to be able to persuade the others that you really have seen that mountain — that is’s not a mirage or hallucination — and that there really is a viable path from here to there. Your bosses and colleagues may not be fully convinced, but perhaps have enough confidence in your vision to take a gamble on exploring in that direction. But are they prepared to stay the course if things get much worse before they get better? Are they even willing to fund a small exploratory expedition in that direction?
So disruption (or changing mountains) is a tricky business. Proceed with caution! But sometimes there is a big payoff for your organization, and maybe for you, and it’s worth the risk.. A well-run organization will find some way — some incentive structure — that can encourage people to look for big risks that are worth taking, and sometimes to take those risks.