In my most recent article I posed the question “Do You Really Want Disruptive Innovation?”. My goal was to challenge the singular focus many organizations seem to have around creating disruptive innovation, often in circumstances with a lack of infrastructure or will to address and support those kinds of ideas.

Along these lines, but with more of a focus on the role that individual disruptors can play in large organizations, I spoke with Dr. Trish Gorman late last week, who is a presenter at the WOBI on Innovation event in New York City on June 4-5. Below are some excerpts from our conversation:


Why aren’t disruptors addressed and leveraged more effectively by company leadership?

 Encouraging disruptors within an organization sounds good, but it is really difficult to do because, due to their nature, these people are swimming against the main stream. They are often speaking against people in power and are passionate about something that might be off the strategic planning chart. This can be a problem.

When it works out well, we talk about that person being brilliant, but it’s actually quite difficult to live within an organization when you are in the minority, often with contrarian views. Companies do need to work out how to encourage that kind of behavior.

Trish Gorman

Dr. Trish Gorman, thinking about disruptive innovation

What are some examples where companies have changed their culture, to better leverage disruptors?

Culture is essentially supported by processes and norms – which influence behavior. Efforts to change behavior might be similar to the safety and quality movements, where for the last 5-10 minutes of every meeting a question is asked, such as “What have we done here that we shouldn’t have done?”, “Where are we being careless?”, “Where are we not focusing on the unknowns knowns?”

In a separate case, I have seen leadership address tough questions, where they asked themselves “What could I have done differently?” You need to have the kind of leadership that is willing to consistently address these questions in order to model a behavior that encourages constructive debate.

Leadership needs to get the message that disruptors will leave their firm if they don’t get opportunities to express their creative, passionate, or entrepreneurial spirit within their organization.

In other situations, I have seen managers consider multiple options to address a situation, but only present a single idea to leadership. That is a mistake. I ask leaders to explore what options didn’t “make it into the room.” They should also discuss who brought contrarian or rejected ideas up. Usually these ideas are a little off the wall, a little risky. Whatever the ideas are, bring some in, and reward those people for giving it a try. Ask for more alternatives, share more ideas and create a safe environment for those “out of bounds” concepts.

Are disruptors born or created?

Many of the passionate and creative tendencies that disruptors exhibit are innate, but these qualities can easily be suppressed by an organization. Organizations need to help employees express their latent tendencies in constructive ways.

There are actually a number of different types of disruptors. One type of disruptor typically has lots of bold ideas and will see what sticks on the wall. While they are idea rich, they may not be the ones to execute those ideas. Someone else may have high disruptive motivation, but a much more narrow field of vision. These disruptors are about bold solutions, rather than bold ideas.

We tend to have a hero complex about someone who is going to own an idea all of the way through. Try as I might, I have not found stories of individuals who do all of this – from idea through execution – alone. Any kind of innovation is a team effort, especially when talking about disruptive innovation. People need to play roles to their strengths and drive the most value where opportunity exists.

How can companies identify disruptors more effectively?

I am starting a new assessment program that can identify a disruptor not by what they’ll do… but what they’ll do first. When first presented with patterns that don’t match, disruptors tend to take a different set of steps than the normal population. For example, if confronted by a business where revenues are down in a core area, most managers will generally do the same things. They will see if a competitor has entered the market, look at operations, and examine marketing. Disruptors take a more lateral approach. They might consider what should be sold instead, with a goal of taking activities in a different direction.

As you can see, it was a great conversation with Dr. Gorman, and I am looking forward to her presentation at WOBI on Innovation next week. Don’t forget, if you want a discount to the event, use the code (INNONYC14).

Let me know if you will be at the event and I would love the opportunity to catch up.