I am preparing for the upcoming WOBI on Innovation conference on June 4-5 in NYC, focused on disruptive innovation, which should provide some engaging conversations and presentations. I am looking forward to it! The agenda got me thinking about some recent discussions that I have had around disruptive innovation, tied with developing cultures of innovation.

At first I thought "What does a 1950's housewife care about disruptive innovation?" Then I realized it was Vivienne Westwood and everything made sense

At first I thought “What does a 1950’s housewife care about disruptive innovation?” Then I realized it was Vivienne Westwood and everything made sense

As you are aware, disruptive innovation has been the holy grail of innovation for the past 20 years, in part driven by evangelists like Clayton Christensen and his consulting firm Innosight. I tend to work with leadership at more mature businesses, and in the right circumstances (e.g. desperate,  in fear of imminent collapse, visionary leader, new competitors appearing, etc.) I think truly disruptive innovation can be a valid path to drive the long term survival and growth of an organization. As I talk about innovation with corporate leadership in organizations that are more stable, my perspective is that they talk about changing market dynamics, competitive landscape, and margin pressures as mid-term concepts, rather than immediate burning needs that threaten the ongoing existence and strength of their business. My take on this is that they talk (a lot) about pursuing disruptive innovation, but the reality is that they don’t really want, or are able, to support it.

Pushing forward with disruptive innovation, in organizations that have enormous vested interests in the status quo, requires either extremely strong and well coordinated leadership (at the very top of the house) who has the full backing of stakeholders and colleagues. As an alternative, they need vocal critics (often from outside the organization) who push for major disruptive change within the organization. Honestly, that is just tough to find in many organizations. I rarely come across that kind of drive when I am in the marketplace.

What I do see are leaders that are experiencing increasing competitive pressures, with a need for growth and improved margins. They arrange for innovation to generate some financial impact in the short term, with the possibility for a broader expansion over time. What they are seeing is that they can’t get any substantial level of innovation activity and results without the appropriate cultural support within their business. They want to move forward with innovative development, but will under invest in the response, with a resulting moderate and incremental response.

"Think of the Children!" is exactly what Clayton considers when he thinks about disruptive innovation

“Think of the Children!” is exactly what Clayton considers when he thinks about disruptive innovation

Now, before I go any further, let me just say that this thinking is very much determined on how you define disruptive innovation. Christensen wrote a lot about this, and the definition of what is innovation seems to pop up at every conference I have gone to in the past 5 years. So while I might class a new product as incremental, others might call it a massive breakthrough. How you perceive innovation is not an argument I am going to get into today, as we will never get an answer that we can all agree to.

So while breakthrough, disruptive innovation can be great for an organization under the right circumstances, let’s also consider the value that more incremental improvements can provide to an organization. Let’s be very realistic about the difficulties in changing a huge organization and the impact that this will have across all parts of the business and clients. Let’s avoid situations like those faced by The New York Times, where they prepared a full report on disruptive approaches to media, which they didn’t act on (fair enough) but which was then (ironically) leaked to several blogs (read more here)

There is lots of room for innovation across any organization, and I look forward to learning more around how people are considering disruptive innovation at the WOBI on Innovation conference shapes up in a few weeks.

BTW, use this discount code (INNONYC14) for the WOBI on Innovation conference tickets. Let me know if you will be attending the event.

Let me know your thoughts on the application of disruptive innovation?