Disruptive Technologies and Innovation – Managing the change

Disruptive innovation creates new opportunities, markets, and displaces existing markets, products, and services. Disruptive technologies drive new growth, creates new opportunities, forms new companies. Most organizations are under threat of potentially wrenching competitive and technological change. Disruptive innovation has characteristics that traditional customer or industry segments may not want, at least initially. (E.g. taxi industry Vs Uber). These innovations may appear as cheaper, simpler, and more accessible when compared to existing products, and has a small segment of early adopters.


Companies are structured for disruptive change in large part because they have never had to be. Most companies focus on the client and user side of the business and their needs typically paying little attention to emerging technology change and innovations that may impact their industry segment. Disruptive innovation is difficult to forecast and it is not a repeatable process. In today’s dynamic and turbulent political and business environment, leading disruptive innovation is more about best principles than best practices, and requires a disruptive approach to operations and management itself. Whether going after disruptive innovations that leapfrog competitors and customer expectations, or focusing on ‘blue oceans’ that represent white-space opportunities to create entirely new markets, the leadership issues are similar. Leaders must embrace ambiguity, live with uncertainty for long periods of time, and confront the critiques of naysayer both inside and outside of their organizations. We are operating in an environment of continuous transitions and adaptable organizations.


Disruptive innovation that transforms or creates new markets has become the Holy Grail for many companies. Business leaders face big challenges when it comes to disruptive innovation. Many executives rise through the ranks of management, where predictability-control is valued and rewarded. Unlike operations management, disruptive innovation– whether creating or responding– involves uncertainty. Unexpected events, inevitable failures, and a fundamental lack of control are inherent to the process. But few leaders are formally prepared to deal with the realities of leading or responding to disruption. Perhaps the most defining characteristic of disruptive innovation is the great uncertainty that it creates for leaders, organizations, and entire industries.


While most organizations possess a general awareness of the importance and necessity of disruptive innovation and change in general, there is a gap when it comes to understanding the deeper leadership qualities necessary for driving them. Many leaders rely on research and data for decision-making to manage daily operations, but during times of disruption, waiting for hard data to make decisions can quickly result in failure and the risk of being left behind or even driven to bankruptcy. Leaders must be comfortable using whatever information they have on hand, integrating inputs from diverse sources around them, and then using their intuition to round out the decision making process. The challenge for any business is that the competencies necessary for leading disruptive innovation are not formulaic or quantifiable.

There are no educators, let alone companies, who can prepare their leaders to manage unforeseen events and disruptors and live with being misunderstood or criticized, especially for extended periods of time. When it comes to leading for disruption, recognizing the “disrupter” is the difficult job’ and can make the difference between success and failure.

The possible strategies that begin to address uncertainty or disruptive innovation and disruptive change are:

  • Listen–Start with yourself, not the market: Contrary to conventional wisdom, disruptive leadership is not about analyzing customer needs, creating specifications to meet each need, and building great products and services to meet them. It is about what is coming at your possibly from multiple directions or regions.

  • Explore – Go outside to stretch the inside: Leading through disruptive events requires an adaptable organization and flexible leadership minds that appreciate ambiguity. Disruptive innovators know uncertainty contains as much opportunity as it does risk.

  • Act fast– Take quick small simple steps, again, again: Disruptive leadership involves putting a flexible stake in the ground around a specific opportunity, and then taking a series of actions to intentionally challenge assumptions and rapidly change direction as many times as necessary.

  • Persist– Take the surprise out of failure: Leading for disruptive innovation involves creating ‘optimistic persistence’ in order to combat fear, pessimism and the tendency to retrench back into the safety of the existing business model.

  • Seize the opportunities as they present themselves – Make the journey (change) part of the (moving targets) destination: Leading disruptive innovation is a process fundamentally laden with unknowns, the core essence of risks, and opportunities.


The term ‘disruptive innovation’ has become an industry buzzword.


Firms seeking growth via new markets are more likely to succeed than firms seeking growth by entering established markets, and the revenue opportunity is twenty greater.


Disruptive innovation, by its nature, destroys entire industries or segments of industries by making them obsolete. If you simply measure the economic impact on the fact that some industries are no longer present, or that those products are no longer being sold, you could argue that there’s a negative impact on the economy. But the nature of innovation is that we make things obsolete by making other things better and more powerful and changing the way we do things.

The end result is, generally speaking (and, yes, there are exceptions), better for everyone, enabling them to do more with less and do so more productively. Progress has an amazing way of destroying old ways of doing business, and we shouldn’t fear or worry about that, we should celebrate it. More and more leaders and companies recognize that they must proactively disrupt or risk being disrupted. But business-as-usual leadership, where big visions are followed by detailed roadmaps and action plans do more than stifle disruptive innovation: They represent liabilities to success. Leading disruptive innovation involves adopting principles that fall outside the traditional training of managers and leaders. New leadership competencies are required to navigate disruption. This means uncovering one’s deeper motivations to drive meaningful opportunities for others; pushing personal boundaries to challenge one’s assumptions; taking steps into the unknown with the view that failure isn’t a failure at all but rather a stepping stone to learning and progress, and tuning into surprises as a kind of portal for gaining new insights and uncovering opportunities.


To lead disruptive innovation successfully requires that we disrupt the most fundamental mindsets and behaviors that have led us to our current success. For example, six-sigma and Kaizen and all other pearls of corporate wisdom that were, traditionally, the foundation for business success, but are now minor players in the rapidly moving and highly competitive digital age. An estimated 65-75% of all new products that established companies introduce into their markets fail. Business history is littered with wounded and extinct companies that failed to pursue disruptive innovation. Since companies innovate faster than customers’ lives change, most organizations end-up producing products that are– too good, expensive, inconvenient for many customers. By only pursuing ‘sustaining innovations’ that perpetuate what has, historically, helped them succeed, and companies unwittingly open the door to ‘disruptive innovations’– simpler, more-convenient, and lower-cost products… Although disruption is the key to new growth, companies must never ignore their core offerings and continue to pursue ‘sustaining innovation’ to maintain growth.

We live in a period of staggering technological change. While society is being transformed by disruptive innovation during this transition, it will be your own individual adaptability that will determine if you are a winner or a loser.

Every 24 hours, there are approximately 4 million smartphones sold, 8 billion hits on YouTube, 700 million tweets, 130 million Instagram uploads, and over 200 million sent emails. There are now more iPhones sold every day than babies born, and the world has more than 3 billion internet users accessing 1.2 billion websites. Facebook alone has more than 1.3 billion users, which translates to a ratio of 1 in every 7 people of the word. In fact, if Facebook were its own country, by population, it would be the second largest.

The onslaught of the information revolution is truly staggering and permanently reshaping our world.

It is causing massive disruption, propelling many people forward but leaving many behind as well. It is creating both incredible opportunities and significant risks, and in the words of the author William Gibson, who coined the term Cyberspace, “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” It is not the innovation itself that matters, but its implications during this transition. For the individual, the key will be how to take advantage of these changes, while protecting one’s family, business, career, investments and way of life.


Disruptive innovation, driven by new technolo