Disrupt yourself … disruptive innovation starts with you, the business leader, says Whitney Johnson

January 10, 2018

Disruption was officially the most common business buzzword of last year. We all know that new technologies are having a hugely disruptive impact on how we do business. And by adding new business models, reaching new audiences, and delivering new customers experiences they can fundamentally change the competitive landscape.

But to do something about it, business leaders have to do more. Locked into their existing frames of thinking, or even worse to their old models of success, most leaders struggle to tune into this new world. Making the shift from fixed mindset to “growth mindset” is  start, but it often needs something more dramatic.

Business leaders need to disrupt themselves.

Former Wall Street equity analyst Whitney Johnson is an expert on disruptive innovation and personal disruption. In her book Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work she defines a framework for doing that, and goes further in her new book Build an “A” Team: Play To Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve. 

Her research in disruptive innovation starts with the understanding that the framework of disruption is at a very high level a framework for managing change … beginning with the individual. She developed the framework whilst leading the Disruptive Innovation Fund with Harvard’s Clay Christensen. Whether scaling a business or trying to get your people to be more innovative, her research helps people to harness, rather than just cope with change and to drive the new strategies and innovations that will succeed in a changing world.

Whitney will be joining me at this year’s Thinkers50 European Business Forum (EBF18) in Odense, Denmark on 26-27 September 2018, when we will specifically focus on the challenges of new technologies, and how to harness them for more positive impact – for people and profit. It doing so, we will explore the new ways of thinking demanded of business leaders, and how they can make better choices.

We recently asked 50 of the world’s top business thinkers to write a letter to the world’s CEOs, and collectively they can be found in a new book from Thinkers50 called Dear CEO. Here is Whitney Johnson’s letter to business leaders:

Dear Chief Executive Officer,

I talk about disruption and disruptors. For a lot of people, the term ‘disruption’ is heard commonly enough that they tune it out as a mere buzzword. This is unfortunate, because disruption is a powerful force that transforms organizations, communities and ultimately the world. It’s critical to the success of your organization, but the tricky secret is that companies and organization don’t disrupt unless their people do.

According to Towers Perrin, Intl., organizations with a highly engaged workforce increased operating income by 19.2%, while low engagement led to a 32.7% decline in operating profits.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the data on employee engagement is abysmal. Really, really bad. You may think that your biggest problem is something happening at the government policy level, or systemic flaws in your business or financial model that must be addressed, or the latest tricks your competitors are getting up to. The reality is your biggest problem is that your employees are disengaged from their work and from the mission of your enterprise. In fact, if they’re like the majority of American workers, the phrase ‘bored out of their gourd’ aptly describes how your average employee feels while on the job. For you.

The famous annual Gallup poll on employee engagement hasn’t reported much change in several years. The fraction of employees who feel engaged at work has hovered stubbornly just below one third. Fifty percent say they are “not engaged” and over 17% unabashedly describe themselves as “actively disengaged.” I suspect that means they’re hunting for a new job, and if they are bright, talented and capable they will find one and with it, hopefully, a better chance to strut their stuff than is currently available to them. They will disrupt themselves. But even the merely disengaged are less productive, have little motivation or outlet for their gifts and are contributing less to your bottom line than you might wish. Disengagement is highest among the younger generations of workers—the most innovative, tech savvy and frustratingly mobile members of the workforce. These valuable and expensive resources will be out your door as well, in less than three years on average.

Your workplace culture almost certainly needs to change to encourage and facilitate internal personal disruption and you must lead the charge. Here’s what I recommend, to start:

Develop managers as talent spotters to identify the potential value of disruptive employees, clear their path and green-light their dreaming and innovation. Speed new ideas on to realization. Watch out for the nay-sayers, those who throw up obstacles to change. Adopt the mindset of a cycling team, with everyone helping the fittest riders move into the lead.

Cultivate a risky playing field, where failure is not terminal and employees can explore possibilities, venture into untried territory and learn from mistakes as well as successes. Real stretch assignments + real accountability = real progress.

Reward talent-developers. Which of your many managers are willing to truly encourage the people who could replace them? Who has a lot of subordinates promoted from their department or is willing to broker moves for them? Managers add value by developing nascent talent and they build morale and momentum by helping employees disrupt themselves internally.

Provide genuine and tangible remuneration for those who bring their distinctive strengths to work for you. Personal disruptors should be celebrated and rewarded with open doors to additional innovation.

Train to train, not to retain. Make opportunities to learn a do more the modus operandi rather than a tactic of last resort to placate disgruntled high value employees. Those who know they are being groomed for additional responsibilities are more likely to hang around and embrace new challenges.

Think long term and ride out the near term productivity setbacks that can occur when employees take on new roles. Change brings growing pains, but growing pains are a desirable problem, unlike the acute discomforts that accompany ossification and degeneration.

Engagement. Loyalty. Innovation. Higher performance. Higher profits. These are impressive outcomes that result from one simple input—encouraging personal disruption. It is going to happen no matter what you do. The only question is whether your valuable employees disrupt for you or from you. Help your employees achieve their dreams while on the job for you and the dreams you hold for your business are more likely to come true as well.

Wishing you every success as YOU personally disrupt your status quo,

Whitney Johnson

Join Whitney at the Thinkers50 European Business Forum (EBF18) in Odense, Denmark on 26-27 September 2018

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