The Ugly Truth About Disruption & Innovation

The Ugly Truth About Disruption & Innovation

Disruption literature, like Innovation literature, is something that most often resembles junk food. It tastes great, has very little substance, and any money spent on it is often regretted because it didn't really do anything to improve your disposition.

The sad truth is that a number of business books written on the topic do little to address what it takes to be innovative, but instead resemble a seminar on how to get rich buying real estate. It's a lot of common sense, where the only person really getting rich is the person selling the material but does little to make millionaires out of everyone else in the audience (at the same time though, there are certainly great books written on the topic as well).

Any "10 steps to a more innovative or disruptive company" book can't possible take on all the issues that hinder companies from really being innovative, and most ignore the fact that companies focus on NOT being disruptive because it's high risk and very expensive. Instead, efficiency is typically the better bet because it's doing the same thing cheaper and better, allowing a company to compete on price and quality vs taking a gamble on a whole new product / service venture.

Yet, every executive strives to learn the secret sauce that'll cause their company to rise up as the trend setter and launch disruptive products to keep their competitors on their heels and drive ahead as the category captain while developing an industry reputation for strategic product development and innovative brain trusts throughout the company.

I've spent the last several years traveling the world, working with companies adopting mobile technology after spending several years at the Boeing Company, helping to manage the disruption of the smart phone in a way that produced meaningful value at the end of the hype cycle. What I found after talking to 100's of people at several fortune 1000 companies was so strikingly similar that I decided to publish a book on how to be disruptive and innovative effectively, because so many companies are just flat out doing it wrong.

The ugly truth I found in interviewing companies though, was that everyone thought being disruptive was something that happened all at once and only took one brilliant idea so they spent money on white board and clear glass conference rooms believing they were planting the seeds for disruption because everyone felt more innovative due to a trip to Ikea and a TED seminar on disruption.

Dr. Clayton Christensen has made a career on addressing why start-ups run differently than a corporation when it comes to innovation, and other scholars such as Drs. Stuart Evans & Homa Bahrami at Carnegie Mellon & Berkley University have done ground breaking research on how to help corporations respond better when it comes to handling an increasingly disruptive industry ecosystem. Yet, Ikea and TED alone will do as much for your company on being disruptive as Dale Carnegie's book on winning friends will help your sales team. It's a start, and a great input, but it takes far more than that to be good at being disruptive and staying in business in the meantime.

The truth is, it takes considerable investment and takes multiple repetitions to get good at being disruptive, and most companies don't have the appetite to keep trying to stay ahead of the pack and instead fall into conformity and efficiency once they've found their meal ticket. Google was at the heart of disruption, until they grew up and decided that their core business was advertising revenue and killed off a lot of other efforts and projects that didn't support either cost savings (hardware, energy, infrastructure, etc) or information gathering and computational ninjutsu to support greater returns for their advertising customers (everything else they do).

To do something continually better, means you aren't just innovative once - it becomes the core of your business to keep shuffling the deck and accepting that the lack of structure is the new normal. Yet, what do you focus then if you have a lack of focus? In truth, there is always a focus - but it's not so heavily weighted around your products or services. Instead, you have to center your company on an idea or trend that never goes out of style.

You might look at Amazon and say it's a technology company. If you ask Jeff Bezos though, he would say that Amazon's focus is selling things and technology is just the means to an end. If you talk to an executive at Toyota, and ask if they're a car company, they'd disagree and instead say they're a transportation company.

At Boeing, I often had the conversation about whether the company was focused on building airplanes or connecting people. If it was about connecting people, then could Boeing get into telepresence or purchase Skype? It fundamentally challenged people as to what they thought the company's focus was, and though it was meant as more of a mental exercise than an actual suggestion, you can imagine people's reaction.

To be truly disruptive though, you have to think of your company as something bigger than the products or services you use. It has to be something, like connecting people or transportation, that won't go out of style no matter how many years or technologies go by. The really ugly truth is that it goes against the majority of MBA best practices you'll learn about in any good business school because of the significant risk it poses on any balance sheet.

To get good at being disruptive, further more, requires a lot of failure to build that muscle to where you have a second nature reflex for burning everything down and growing something bigger faster and stronger. That's not an easy skill, nor is a cheap one to learn. Yet, you will always be in a state of survival, worrying about what your competitors are coming up with, and fighting against time and change, entrenching yourself in a safe position.

What do you think of your company as? What is it you do, or build that might provide value 100 years from now? If cars became out of style, and we instead adopted hover crafts, what auto companies would phase out cars to build a better way to transport people? How many railroad companies went out of business, when planes and trucks came into the picture, because they said they were focused on building better trains vs building better ways to transport?

It's a scary scary thing being the one willing to throw away the playbook and start in a whole new direction, one that isn't even fully defined, which is why start-ups continually have the advantage. However, acquisitions are messy and corporations have a really poor track record with acquiring innovative companies and using that to fuel their own internal engines.

Instead, a company must be super flexible and focus not on burning everything down, but focus on how to bend and flex into new areas while withstanding the types of economic shifts that put 90% of start-ups out of business, thereby taking advantage of it's size and stability. It's no easy task, which makes it the ugly truth most innovation books fail to recognize, but it's absolutely critical to staying ahead of the pack vs continually looking over your shoulder.

My book comes out in October, but you can learn more about the research done around becoming super flexible at or contact me at for material on how to tackle this challenge based on what I've seen work and not work at companies around the world (I'll even send you a digital copy of the book if you're interested).

By Dan Maycock. Orignialy published on

Dan Maycock

Dan Maycock

Director of Strategy & Analytics at OneAccord Digital