How Individuals and Firms Thrive in an Increasingly Disruptive World


Kare Anderson, Contributor

November 19, 2015

Our innate desire to feel a sense of belonging has a dark side. While its healthy and productive to form mutually beneficial and diverse relationships within our organization we may also become ”so cliquish that we refuse to look beyond our borders and think poorly of other cultures or ideas,” writes Disrupt Yourself author Whitney Johnson. Thus we are less likely to grow and to innovate, she believes. That effect also make companies and industries myopic, she concludes.

Whitney suggests ways to avoid this trap in her book. Here’s one: “transplant yourself to new cultures.” Engage with diverse people in organizations and situation very different than yours sometimes. Immerse yourself in other cultures, even if you will feel like the outsider at first. Reward: you will see situations from fresh sides. For example, Whitney cites immigrants to the U.S. as examples of facing both, noting that novel experiences are valuable to innovation: “Immigrants are more than twice as likely to start a business as native-born Americans, and 52 percent of Silicon Valley start-ups include an immigrant. Forty percent of the Fortune 500 companies were founded by first-generation immigrants or their children.”

Understanding how to stay innovative, as an individual and a firm, is increasingly vital to thriving our “increasingly disruptive” world, according to Whitney. That’s why I interviewed her recently regarding her approach to not getting caught in the undertow of change but to benefit from it. As the co-founder of renowned Clay Christensen’s investment firm, Rose Park Advisors who has successfully “disrupted” her career several times she can speak from first-hand experience

Q. For those of us who do not have an investment analysis background, as you do, how would you describe the S-shaped growth curve for disruptive innovation that you advocate in your book?

A. Disruptive innovation is a practice employed by companies wherein they introduce a product deemed inferior by the market leader (Amazon v. Borders, Uber v. Yellow Cab) that leads to the market leader’s undoing, seemingly by surprise. Personal disruption involves applying this practice to you and your career.

Disruption can be hard to spot because of time delays, hence the element of surprise.  Huge effort today may yield little in the near-term. While high output today may be the consequence of work done months ago. One of the best ways to deal with these time delays is the S-curve model, developed by E.M. Rogers in 1962, as it provides milestones you can watch for. Adoption is relatively slow at first, at the base of the S, until a tipping point or the knee of the curve is reached, which typically is between 10-15% market penetration. You then move into hyper-growth, up the sleek steep back of the curve. At 90%+ you reach saturation.

What’s exciting to me is that the S-curve also helps us understand the psychology of disruption. If you are trying something new, S-curve math says that initially you are going to work hard without seeing much progress. This helps avoids discouragement. As you put in the hours, you will accelerate up the curve while confidence soars. Then, as you approach mastery and everything becomes easy, boredom can kick in, your plateau becoming a precipice. So you jump to a new curve.

Q.  What is a current trend or event that shows us the need to understand exactly how to disrupt ourselves?

A.  The pace of technological change is accelerating. According to Google computer scientist and futurist, the rate of progress or change sped up significantly in the 20th century.  Given this rate of change (measured by how much time it takes for 25% of the population to adopt a new technology), what was accomplished in all of the 1900s, as of 2000, would only take twenty years to achieve.  For example, it took 35 years for mass adoption of the telephone, 31 years for the radio, a decade for the cell phone, seven years for the Internet. With the time to mass adoption decreasing by half every decade, Kurzweil estimates we will see two hundred centuries worth of progress.

While correlation does not prove causality, the employment statistics would seem to support this quickening pace of change.  Whereas baby boomers (born between 1957 through 1964) held 11 jobs on average between ages 18 and 44, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, millennials are expected to hold 14 jobs before they even hit forty. The person that can successfully ride the S-curve waves of disruption will have a competitive advantage in an era of accelerating change.

Q.  Who is someone you admire that is adept at disrupting themselves, and why?

A.  Carine Clark, CEO of MaritzCX. In 2002, Carine Clark was senior director of network products at Novell, responsible for building a global campaign for an $800 million business. At the height of her success there, Clark left to run marketing (at a third of her former salary) for the unknown start-up Altiris, a SaaS-based platform for managing IT assets. This step back became the launchpad for her personal rocket ship. In 2007, Symantec, a security and storage software company with revenue of more than $6 billion, acquired Altiris. Clark eventually became the chief marketing officer.

In 2012, after a sabbatical to deal with stage-three ovarian cancer, Clark took what some would consider a step down to become the CEO of Allegiance, a $20 million software company that analyzes customer data in real time. In early 2015, MaritzCX acquired Allegiance. Despite Allegiance being one-tenth the size of MaritzCX in terms of revenue, Clark was immediately tapped by Maritz’s chairman to be the president and CEO. Clark’s ability to take calculated backward moves has been critical to her career success.  Or as she likes to say, “lose something now to win something that is bigger and better.”

Q.  What is one way to become less risk averse and an example of someone who has taken that approach?

A.  For most of us the word risk conjures negative connotations.  When we hear that something is risky, most of us have a visceral or fearful reaction. However, Mother Nature seems to have built a loophole into our sense of well-being because somewhere within our genetic make-up is the inclination to take risks, and careful analysis of the animal kingdom suggests that fortune does favor the risk taker.

If you’re not a risk taker by nature, you can still learn to take risks, though the approach will be different, depending on whether you are prevention or promotion-focused.  According to researchers Tory Higgins and Heidi Grant-Halvorson, if you are promotion-focused, you may be comfortable taking chances, dreaming big,  focusing on maximizing gains. If you are prevention-focused, you look to stay safe, worry about what could go wrong, focusing on minimizing losses.  For example one professional colleague had an a-ha moment after reading my book about taking the right risks.  Realizing she is prevention-focused, she knows that to motivate herself to take risks, she doesn’t need to dream bigger, she just needs to ask what she might lose if she stands still.
Q. When does it behoove us to step back in our career and how can we do so?

A. There are times when it doesn’t make sense.  When you are working toward an ambitious and achievable goal such as managing a division of your company, just keep going.  But if you’ve reached the top rung of the ladder you are climbing, it can be time to find a new ladder, for the same reason that companies must.  To head of the competition — what you do well will over time be done more affordably, possibly effectively by up-and-comers. Or for the greater rewards that disruption might bring, as was the case with Carine Clark.

Step back. How do you make these backward moves that can catapult you forward? Trade-offs.  Clark gave up security and stature at Novell for responsibility and career upside at Altiris. She made a similar trade-off in jumping from Symantec to Allegiance.  Sure, there was some luck involved.  But knowing Clark, she is a lady that makes her own luck.

Q.  How do you deal with dissenting voices?

A. The literature on innovation tends to frame innovation as a battle, the spry innovators versus the staid status quo, as a David-vs-Goliath battle.  The challenge for an organization or an individual is to recognize that moving forward almost always that we work together not against each other.   One way to help me to reframe this is to observe my pronouns.  Who am I calling ‘us’? ‘them’?  Who’s calling me ‘you’ and ‘them’?Just this week, we were faced with this at my daughter’s school.  They launched an initiative that I thought was ill advised. Finger pointing would have lead to a standoff.  So, I asked the question — what kind of conversation could we have that would allow for the use of ‘we’ instead of ‘you’ and ‘me’?  It takes some out-of-the-box thinking, but learning to frame situations as ‘we’ will almost always speed progress along the curve of disruption.

Q.  What is one of your favorite pieces of advice?

A.  After I put the book to print, I heard Bob Iger, former head of Disney say, “Disrupt Yourself. It’s gonna happen anyway, so best do it yourself.” Well said, Mr. Iger.
In interviewing Whitney, one of her conclusions stuck with me as perhaps the most compelling reason to follow her approach: it requires us to adopt a mutuality mindset and constantly explore who to learn and to compare g in every situation, especially from those unlike us.

She writes: “ Learning is not linear, but exponential: there is a cumulative and compounding effect. If you do something disruptive today, then the probability that you can be disruptive tomorrow increases. Momentum creates momenturn.”


This article was written by Kare Anderson from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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