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Four Types Of Disruptive Innovators, And How to Nurture Them

Four Types Of Disruptive Innovators, And How to Nurture Them

The New Yorker recently argued that “disruption” doesn’t really exist. Wrong, says Trish. Many companies harbor these potential innovators and should encourage them — or risk losing them to a competitor that values their insights and energy.

Let Clay Christensen, The New Yorker Argue About Disruption — Here’s How It Really Works

Bring up the subject of disruption, and you’re sure to spark passions — and controversy. Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor and founder of the theory of disruptive innovation, and Jill Lepore, a Harvard history professor and New Yorkerwriter, have been creating their own July 4 fireworks lately with their public spat about whether disruption explains the complex, rapidly changing business environment we’re grappling with today. (Here’s Lepore’s article and Christensen’s rebuttal.)

These two academics are in surprising agreement, though, that the idea of disruption is thrown around too freely, without a clear understanding of what it means, who’s responsible for creating it, or what to do about it. The concept of disruption is explosive, and so are the disruptors — the individuals who drive dramatic changes in an organization.

Disruptors are both difficult and wonderful to work with. They are, to put it bluntly, blowing things up within an organization. They challenge established patterns of behavior. Their ideas may cause a business to shift the vision it communicates to employees and customers, or to walk away from projects that once received significant investment.

Yet all disruptors are not created equal. They may be more conceptual or concrete in their thinking; their areas of expertise may be narrow or broad. Each type brings their own strengths and weaknesses. To get anything innovative done, you need a team that combines different types who can work together, communicate effectively and leverage each other’s strengths.

What kind of a disruptor was Steve Jobs? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before going into more detail, it’s helpful to define what disruption really means. At its core, it signals a fundamental, lasting change to the way businesses function. Think of how organizations like Coursera, with their massive, open online courses, are disrupting the notion of a university education. Or look at the way realtors in New York City are using drones to take photos of properties for listings, drawing the scrutiny of the Federal Aviation Administration. Aereo recently had to suspend its streaming, over-the-air television service after losing a Supreme Court case, but now it’s appealing to Congress to change the law. The details of these shifts are still being worked out, but one thing is clear — these industries aren’t going back to what they once were.

Companies can disrupt products, as with Amazon’s Kindle, which has upended book publishing and distribution. They also can change services: Coinstar kiosks allow customers to trade in their coins for cash, retailer gift cards or charitable donations. Businesses like Eyeglasses.com, which offer a much broader range of options than physical stores, are disrupting processes. Threadless, the T-shirt company that lets people contribute and vote on new designs, is changing the entire business model of clothing production.

These are examples of disruption at work, but what’s important here is to shift from thinking about disruptive businesses to looking at disruptors within organizations. Every company harbors these potential innovators. They can be encouraged — or they can be driven to a competitor that values their insights and energy.

No single description can define every disruptor, but these individuals frequently have certain clusters of traits, such as curiosity and passion. Most disruptors fall into one of four categories, as this chart illustrates.


Which of the fourlay  disruptor roles could you play?

The left side of the chart ranges from low to high motivation. This doesn’t mean that disruptors with low motivation aren’t contributing; rather, this axis shows the difference between thinkers (low motivation to act) and doers (high motivation to act). Strong companies need both. The bottom of the chart shows the difference between those with a narrow but deep skill set and those with a broad range of expertise and positive attributes.

Type 1: The entrepreneur. These are the skunkworks leaders — like the members of the small group Steve Jobs established to develop the Macintosh computer. They are the founders of disruptive organizations like Twitter TWTR +0.49%. They make bold commitments. They are the ones who go out and find the resources they need for their projects. Their action orientation can be powerful, but with too many Type 1s, your team may be tempted to take the first good idea they come across and run with it, instead of taking the time to find the best option.

Type 2: The provocateur. These are the expert critics, those who understand a particular skill or business line so thoroughly that they instinctively grasp the theoretical implications of a disruptive idea. They have a daring vision of what is possible and do an excellent job in the role of devil’s advocate. To get things done in your company, Type 2s need to be balanced with people who are ready to take their pushback and use it to strengthen the concepts the team decides to put into practice.

Type 3: The thought leader. Types 2 and 3 are similar in that both focus more on ideas than concrete actions. Thought leaders, though, have a broader perspective on how their disruptive thinking will change the world. They are the source of many high-level ideas. They see the implications of disruption not just across one industry or segment but in lateral and seemingly unrelated fields. If your team is too heavily weighted toward Type 3s, they may generate a lot of suggestions, but they may not get traction on any of them. Type 3 thought leaders need to be balanced with Type 1 entreprenuers and Type 4 problem solvers.

Type 4: The problem solver. These types of disruptors are tenacious and passionate. They have high motivation to apply new insights to their particular field. They create bold solutions. An example of a problem solver would be Johan Karlsson, project manager for Ikea’s Refugee Housing Unit, who used Ikea’s experience with lightweight, flat-pack furniture to create solar-powered huts that provide comfortable housing for displaced families.

The best teams bring together individuals from all four quadrants of the chart. Companies can build these teams by modeling desired attitudes, hiring for certain traits and creating incentives for expressing disruptive behaviors in productive ways. I ask leaders to explore what options didn’t “make it into the room.” Usually these ideas are a little off the wall, a little risky. Leaders serious about innovation can make the effort to recognize individuals who bring up contrarian or rejected ideas, and encourage divergent thinking by rewarding them for taking chances.

With the right mix of vision, passion, ideas and expertise, you and your team can better harness your disruptive tendencies for successful innovation. To learn more about which type of disruptor you are, and what motivates productive disruptors, please see my recent presentation at the World of Business Ideas conference on innovation in New York.


About Trish Gorman

Trish Gorman is a business consultant, writer and speaker. She is the co-author, with Jay Barney, of What I Didn’t Learn in Business School: How Strategy Works in the Real World.