How can we analyse disruptive innovation? Should we even bother?

Originally published at the World MBA Association website.

What is one of the founding, fundamental characteristics of market disruption or disruptive innovation?

It is unexpected. It is part of the realm of “things we don’t know we don’t know”, which once in a while end up surfacing in front of our eyes, often prompting that common (and almost intimately shameful) thought: “why didn’t WE think about that?”.

Disruption is not just a crazy random force of change: when it happens, at some point it simply starts making sense. It makes sense to the market, and even though we aren’t always open about it, it tends to make sense to us too.

That newly-surfaced disruption we just heard about may seem so obvious that we often end up wondering why on Earth we hadn’t thought about it before! Or, sometimes, yes, we did think of something similar… but we ended up doing absolutely nothing about it. The narrative behind disruption is all about the very complex ecosystem we operate in, but this does not mean it is just a by-product of randomness.

While disruption by definition breaks with the “comfortable” main plot line of a certain field or industry, it always follows the same basic narration of human life, one that is generated by (genuine) needs, hopes and dreams.

Which is the reason why successful disruptions could not possibly just be ideated and left alone: they represent a symbiotic dialogue, a biosemiosis between several actors. And these ‘actors’ can only be activated, by definition, with actions.

In a professional setting, this means that disruption could very well be all about business models. But how could an often simplified, and somehow arbitrary model possibly face (and tackle!) the complexity of the world in front of us?

And wait, didn’t we just say that it is all about being unexpected? It is definitely not easy to see how rules or models can possibly fit such a condition.

1. Welcome to meta-innovation

Our business can do much more than just producing or embracing single bits of innovation. What we can do is trying to see the whole process from a further perspective, while beginning to think about the way in which innovation is currently being generated, developed and propagated.

The question to ask: how do we innovate the way we innovate?

2. Sharing innovation through metaphors

The next all-important step to take is realising that innovation, regardless of scale or kind, always needs to be communicated, shared, in order to be activated. This could be a secretive internal process or a completely open and public one; in any case innovation will have to be communicated, and we’d better be ready to do it successfully.

Yet, a piece of disruptive innovation in its earliest phases can be so hard to understand that even the best experts in the world might not grasp its full potential the first time they hear about it! To initiate this process we should always remember the way our brain likes to identify and comprehend new information (which also happens to be the main building block of any language): we use metaphors.

The question to ask: what metaphor(s) can we use to share disruptive information?

3. Timing, timing, timing

We must always be aware of how our industry/market is behaving: acting at precisely the right time is what can give us a clear edge over our competition.

Too early, and our brilliant market disruption will not make any sense to most; too late, and it might have lost all of its relevance and urgency.

This is an aspect that can become very daunting and complex, so much that it will not be possible to analyse it in detail in this article. Furthermore, when to act and how to evolve (or not) disruptive innovation with time is the single most important and difficult aspect to deal with, even when we are managing our own lives.

On one hand, we should all have a healthy sense of urgency: realising that we have (however long) just a limited time to do something meaningful in our life, can effectively increase our commitment towards the realisation of future scenarios.

On the other hand, just like the best hunters in nature instinctively do, we should always be fully aware of our surroundings. This is what lets us know when it might be the perfect time to “strike”.

Questions to ask:
- What does our business model have in common with direct competitors and/or market leaders?
- What makes it unique?
- How does the industry look like today?
- What is happening in the low-end of the market? And how about the high-end?
- Who is disrupting who, at the moment, in our industry and/or geographical area?
- Are there any weak signals of disruptions that can soon create a whole new market?

We don’t know what the next market disruption will be. If we (or the market) knew, it would just not be a disruption, but a simple incremental evolution.

We are now in a fully interconnected world and market, one where disruptive events are not just more common than before: they can also be more brutal and “violent” in nature.

Being good spectators is no longer an option; it is necessary to look beyond this passive role and prepare in the best way possible to be that one actor in the market that can handle the unknown in the most efficient way.

- Arlon Stok