​Personal disruption: Practical advice for corporate innovation, transformation, and leadership

Author Whitney Johnson, a close associate of management pioneer Clayton Christensen, explains how to apply the techniques of disruptive innovation to our own career and goals. The results provide a foundation for disruptive innovation in large and small companies.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

Before writing her most recent book, titled Disrupt Yourself, author Whitney Johnson was a business partner with superstar thinker Clayton Christensen, who pioneered the concept of disruptive and sustaining innovation.

In the book, Johnson urges readers to apply Christensen's principles of disruptive innovation to their professional career. She believes that applying these principles to oneself can create breakthrough professional results that mirror disruptive innovation for corporations.

Because corporate innovation happens when people inside a company rethink problems and challenges, Johnson's perspective provides the human capital foundation for achieving corporate disruption.

Whitney Johnson is no touchy-feely, new age author. She has had an extraordinary career, starting as a secretary on Wall Street and eventually becoming a top financial equities analyst. As president of Clayton Christensen's Rose Park Advisors, she was involved in fund formation, raising capital, and developing the fund's investment strategy.

I spoke with Whitney as part of the CXOTalk series of conversations with innovative leaders. You can read a detailed transcript of our entire conversation and watch it below.

Here are key points from our discussion, edited for length and clarity:

What is the difference between disruptive and sustaining innovation?

A disruptive innovation is something that is new, typically playing where no one wants to play or has thought of playing. Whereas a sustaining innovation is doing more of what you're already doing.

What conditions help an organization undertake disruptive innovation?

One of the most important things is [create] opportunities to compensate middle management while trying new ideas -- incentivized for trying something new -- giving them time and budget to do that. Otherwise, they have absolutely no incentive: if they do something well, maybe they will get the upside and if they don't do it well, they'll probably be fired.

Why do corporate antibodies inside a large organization try to hinder innovation?

They circle or close ranks because they don't feel safe. They are afraid that if an innovative idea comes along they will not get credit, and therefore not get paid, and therefore not get promoted. Or, they worry about losing their jobs. When we don't feel safe, we circle the wagons.

Whitney Johnson (image courtesy cxotalk.com)
Whitney Johnson (image courtesy cxotalk.com)
When people feel safe, they will work on those innovative ideas. When you step back and analyze it, it all comes down to, "Do I feel safe or not?".

Is fear the enemy of innovation and disruption?

Absolutely 100%.

What is your advice for companies who want to innovate?

Start with the right kinds of risks. Someone may say to you, "There's a need not being met, a job that needs to be done. No one's doing it. I don't have projections, but I think we should design and test to find out." Be open to that as it's one way to figure out if you've got a market opportunity or disruption that builds new businesses and creates something new.

Stick to strengths. Do people inside your organization play to their strengths and is the company playing to its strengths?

You are getting feedback all the time from customers. So make sure you know what your company does uniquely well. Identify it and play to that strength.

Understand your constraints. If you are a really small company, then it's mostly about the constraints, whether lack of time, money, or expertise. If you're a larger company, you may need to impose constraints because you do have many resources.

Battle entitlement. It is a very practical for people to talk to others inside their organization and do the hard work of translating ideas. For example, can I explain what I do or need to someone in marketing or engineering and vice versa? Starting to translate in this way will create a work bond that helps innovation.

Recognize the fact of growth. Nearly every leader can think of someone inside, or reporting to them, who have moved to the top of the S-curve; it's time for this person to move on, but you don't want them to because you need them. However, you've got to let them move. If you do, over time they are going to be even more productive for your organization.

Allow people to fail and learn. If you have people on your team that you are not allowing to fail, then you may not have the right people on the team. If you have the right people, then you are willing to [let go so they learn]. If you are not willing to do that, you may have the wrong people on your team.

Be driven by discovery. Ask yourself, "What has to be proven true for us, to continue with this new idea?"

These seven, very concrete things can start to move the gears. They are practical, simple, and create a shift where disruption happens and moves into corporate innovation.

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