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What Comes After Disruption?

If everyone is busy disrupting the market, how do we recognise real innovation — and where do we start, asks Mark Shayler

Photo: Anna Jacobsen

The word ‘disrupt’ has become over-used. Every stalling or failing business talks about the need to disrupt. Every startup aims to disrupt the market. Every agency has a ‘process’ for disruption (oh, the irony). Whilst the word is over-used, the application of disruptive creativity is still thin on the ground. There are very few examples of companies who are truly embracing fast and disruptive ways of thinking.

Everyone would point to companies like Uber and Tesla as examples of hyper-disruption. With Tesla they have a real point. Uber is a crazily over-used example and many commentators argue that they aren’t actually changing anything. Tesla, on the other hand, or I should say Elon Musk, is disruptive. He is audacious and brave. Whether it’s solar roofs, mega batteries or SpaceX, his vision and embracing of new technology is genuinely disruptive. Indeed, he doesn’t just harness technology, he pushes it further than anyone else.

So what is the most disruptive company around? Look closer to home — it’s Amazon. Everything they do is geared around disrupting, even destroying, the markets of their competitors. Jeff Bezos once said, ‘If you’re going to invent, you’re going to disrupt’. They are frighteningly good at disrupting markets. Obviously they started in books, then e-readers (the Kindle wasn’t developed to convert older readers to tech, it was developed so the reader would never buy a book from anywhere else), same day delivery, Amazon Prime, Amazon Fire Phone, Amazon Music, Amazon Video and TV, Amazon Studios, Dash Buttons, Alexa and Echo, Amazon Fresh, Amazon Go and they’ve now acquired Whole Foods. The list is endless. They are brilliant. They are frightening. What drives them is a desire to have digital impact upon, and improve, everything. This twinned with their small and agile teams in-house means that they have both the ambition to change anything (literally anything), to do it quickly and watch it soar, or accept failure and move on.

Otherwise, it’s mainly all hot air. It is wishful speaking. Saying your new product is disruptive doesn’t make it so. Introducing a new flavour of ice cream, or a product that has slightly less sugar, isn’t disruptive. It’s a new flavour of ice cream or, in the sugar case, doing things less badly. This is just tinkering.

So what is disruption? It’s about changing the pace or direction of what you are doing. This applies to the individual as much as it applies to a company — and you can also be disruptive from within a large organisation. Not everyone wants, or is in a position to launch a startup.

And you need to act responsibly. There are implications to disruption. You can’t just go around creating mayhem for the sake of it. It has to be purposeful. Having a clear business or personal ‘Why’ really helps here. This will allow you to change both your How and your What to build new business ideas. A great Why encourages disruption, a great Why pushes you to find different ways of achieving the same goal. A great Why gives permission to disrupt.

This isn’t just a fanciful approach to business. There are really significant societal changes in the coming years — power shifts from West to East, from male to female, from retailer to consumer, among others — that will affect what we do, how we do it and even our levels of personal happiness. These present challenges but big opportunities as well. Better get thinking.

We forget that we have permission to innovate. We forget the big stuff and focus on the small stuff. No one is going to do this for you. You need to stop blaming time, or key performance indicators, or deadlines, or other people and get cracking. How are you going to change what you do as a person or a company in order to make things better? One of the problems we have is that initiative is not often rewarded. Our culture is to reward compliance. By their very nature innovation and disruption are non-compliant. So the first stage in changing the (your) world is permission. You need to give yourself permission to innovate. You may feel more comfortable asking for permission. That’s why one of my mantras is: ask for forgiveness not permission.

But this doesn’t work for everyone.

It may be that you need to give yourself permission to change. This is more complex. We often find ourselves stuck in a river of thinking due to fear or habit. The key is to break this thinking yourself before it is broken by something else — redundancy, stress, or bankruptcy.

Remember, you have permission to do things differently. In a competitive world, being different is the only thing that makes you stand out. Thinking differently is a competitive advantage.

Once you’ve given yourself permission to innovate and do things differently, the world looks better. Honestly.

Mark Shayler runs Ape, an innovation-sustainability-brand agency; he has worked with some of the world’s largest and smallest businesses including Amazon, Samsung, Coca-Cola, Unilever and John Lewis, saving them shed-loads* of carbon, over £120 million, increasing sales by over 6,000%, and helping develop new products and services. He is co-founder of Rebel Cell where he builds startups inside larger organisations. He is also a founding partner of The Do Lectures. He is a Virgo who will never get over failing to play professional rugby and not being the lead singer of an indie rock band. But there’s still time and nothing is impossible.

*Technical term.

Adapted from the new edition of Do Disrupt: Change the status quo. Or become it by Mark Shayler. Copyright © 2017 by Mark Shayler. Published by The Do Book Co, September 2017. Available now.

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