Will you Disrupt or be Disrupted?


The fundamental unit of change is the individual. We start at the bottom grasping for knowledge to accelerate, we then move to the sweet spot where we are in a groove, and we know what we are doing, and then we get to the top where we are about to capitulate but since we don’t want to capitulate, we jump at the bottom of a new learning curve. This is what growth looks like. The best way for any of us to manage through the change and disruption brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic is to disrupt ourselves.

Disrupting innovation is what the telephone did to the telegraph, what the automobile did to the horse and buggy, and more recently, what Uber did to the cabs. But disruption is not just about products and services but also about people. With personal disrupting, we ourselves are the telephone and the telegraph, and we ourselves are the Uber and the cabs because we are the disruptor as well as the incumbent. Personal disruption is a cycle of learning, leaping, and repeating. This is where the S-curve of learning comes in. It can help us understand how we learn and how we grow. In the learning process, we are at the base of the S-curve and the growth is slow and difficult. All of us at different points in life have been pushed to the bottom of the S-curve. When the tipping point of the growth is reached, we reach hypergrowth. It is the sweet spot where our knowledge is enough but not too much, it is hard but not too hard and easy but not too easy, and it feels exhilarating, and lastly, the high end of the curve is where the boredom starts to set in because of the feeling of being able to know what we are doing, and we experience the dilemma of personal disruption. 

The best way for any of us to manage through the change and disruption brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic is to disrupt ourselves. 

Interestingly, oftentimes we can intuitively know where we stand in the learning curve. From the organizational level, we are starting to see in our research that organizations that are best equipped to manage through change have a workforce comprising of 70% in the sweet spot, and 15% in the low end and the high end each. Hence, the S-curve can also be applied to organizations and teams, and optimized for growth, and change.

When change comes, we fall under siege, we do more of what we have been doing, hoping to resist what is coming against us. If we have the courage of doing what we have not been doing and break our hold on the past, a space for something new and different is opened. Leo Tolstoy says, “Revolutions are an attempt to shatter the power of evil by violence. [We] think that by hammering upon the mass [we] will be able to break it into fragments. This only makes it more dense and impermeable. Disruptive movement must come from within.” So, if we want to go up, we must disrupt ourselves.

Disrupting ourselves is a difficult process and with the help of the following seven guardrails, we can manage through this change more smoothly. 

  1. Take the right kinds of risks: There are two kinds of risks. The first is a competitive risk, where you know there is a big opportunity and have projections to prove it. You just have to figure out if you can compete and win. We think about that certainly from a company’s perspective all the time, but it can also be thought about from an individual perspective. The second is market risk, where you don’t know if there is a market, an opportunity, but if there is, there is no competition. Again, it can be thought of from both an organizational level and an individual level. The best way to take on that market risk is to play where no one else is playing. Like a moth to the flame, we come back to competitive risk over and over again because the competitive risk is like going to a battle and there is an opposition, and that feels comfortable. With market risk, there are uncharted waters, which feels scary, but the odds of success are six times higher with market risk. According to disruption theory, when you disrupt, you are taking on market risk and the odds of success are higher. So, taking the right risk means you are creating and not competing.
  2. Play to your distinctive strengths: When you are playing where no one else is playing, it would be a lot easier to play to your strengths. Interestingly, we rarely know what our strengths are, let alone the distinctive strengths. We can know our strengths by asking ourselves three questions. First, what makes you feel strong? An activity that makes us feel inquisitive, exhilarated, and successful is what makes us strong. We like to go out and do things that are hard and challenging, and we don’t want to do our strength because that seems easy and reflexive, and therefore invaluable. It is only in times of uncertainty do our strengths come out to play. Second, what exasperates you? The frustration of genius is in believing that if it is easy for you, it must be easy for everyone else. You will know you are around your superpowers when you find yourself thinking that it is just common sense or that everybody knows how to do this. Third, what compliments do you dismiss? The compliments that you dismiss because you hear them all the time or they make you uncomfortable are your genius. People tend to overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are. Also, there is one distinctive strength that each one of us has, and that is the people in our sphere that can only be loved by us.
  3. Embrace constraints: We need to have some friction to have that momentum to climb the S-curve of learning. We are not necessarily going to be successful because we have resources, it’s about what we do with the constraints and how we embrace them. Clayton Christensen, known for his theory of disruptive innovation once said, “When the tension is greatest and the resources are limited, people are actually a lot more open to rethinking the fundamental way they do business.” A person who is trying to disrupt themselves reframe so that the constraints become a tool of creation.
  4. Battle entitlement: One way we can battle our entitlements is by thinking of people as people and not objects. For example, if we are in a situation where we could continue to pay some of the people at work but we let them go just to cut costs, we are treating them as objects and not as people. The second way is to ask “what” questions, not “why”. Instead of saying “Why did this happen to me?” which makes us victims, the question should be “What am I going to do?” If we actually believe that all of us are equal, then the question is “Why wouldn’t it happen to me?” The third way to battle entitlements is to be grateful. During the Great Depression, Eric Hoffer said that “The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.”
  5. Step back to grow: We pull our fist back before we punch. For a disrupter, a step back can turn into a slingshot. In times of crisis, we take several steps back, but the question is how are we going to take a step back from who we are and slingshot into who we can be.
  6. Give failure its due: There are going to be many failures along the way but the problem is not the failure but the shame we attach to the failure. It’s the shame of failure, the moment when our failures become a referendum on our identity and our sense of self that limits disruption, not the failure itself. Failure is merely a constraint that can be turned into a tool of creation.
  7. Be discovery-driven: Whenever we are trying to move forward, we are basically like an explorer. Part of being discovery-driven is also being afraid at times, but 70% of all the successful new businesses started in a place where they did not know where they were going and they ended up in a completely different place, so it’s going to be the same for us. We may end up somewhere different than where we thought we were going. The part of the process is taking a step forward, taking feedback, and adapting. We choose the unknown, we play where no one else is playing because we are driven by discovery.

Kaihan Krippendorff in Conversation with Whitney Johnson

Krippendorff: Is it a smart thing to work together with a colleague, a teammate, a mentor to self-disrupt?

Whitney Johnson: Totally. It is all about having accountability partners. It is the idea that we know what we need to do but it feels scary and uncomfortable to play where no one else is playing, so when you have a partner, you commit to them that you will take that step forward that you are putting off. When you have that accountability partner, you are much more likely to do it. Research says that by committing to someone else that you’re going to do it, by when and even where, the odds go from 10-50% to 90%. Hence, when it comes to self-disruption, having an accountability partner is good.

Krippendorff: How do you balance getting out of your comfort zone while keeping your strong areas strong?

Whitney Johnson: It is almost built within that question where we believe that we have to feel stronger. One of the challenges is that we want to do something we have not done because it makes us feel more valuable, as it is something we are not good at. Instead, start from a position of your strengths and then go do some really hard things. Feeling weak at playing where no one else is playing doesn’t make sense. Play where no one else is playing but do it using your strength so you’re still pushing yourself. 

It’s the shame of failure, the moment when our failures become a referendum on our identity and our sense of self that limits disruption, not the failure itself.

Krippendorff: Different elements in our surroundings continue to hinder those who want to grow. How do we as a society bust through this?

Whitney Johnson: You need to do it gradually. We all have this tendency to think that our boss or something else is preventing us from disrupting ourselves. In this situation, we need to see what is within our purview and what can we control. You can allow the people who work for you, that report to you, to have an opportunity to disrupt themselves. You can make it possible for your peers to do it. As you start to build data points where your span of control starts to extend and you’re more able to get things done, your boss may consider giving you that option too. 

Krippendorff: Before we wrap up, do you have any final thoughts you want to share?

Whitney Johnson:  One of the things that no one tells you is that disruption by definition is scary and lonely, so whenever you leave this comfortable perch, there is this moment of freefall, this loss of identity. The puke to excitement ratio is so uncomfortably high you feel like you are on a throw ride to zero. It does not mean you shouldn’t disrupt; it just means that if it feels scary and lonely, you are on the right path. 

We give a lot of air time to building and buying disruptive companies and we should, but the innovation, the ability to move forward begins on the inside. If any of us are going to be agents of disruption as we move through this, we have to first become its subject. We start at the low end of that S-curve of learning, we shift in the second stage, our learning peaks, and we do what all great innovators do. We walk straight into that dilemma and leap to a new curve because your company, your organization, the society, your family cannot disrupt unless you do. 

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