To Disrupt, You Must Be of Open Mind

Open Your Mind to Disrupt Things

I’ve founded startups, I’ve worked at small companies, I’ve worked at huge companies and I’ve worked at medium size companies. Some may even say that I have an interesting background. When you talk to the senior management of any of these companies, and you ask them to define innovation, or ask where it comes from, you’ll get many different answers.

Many point to incremental innovation, small changes and little bets. Improving their products, making them better. While that’s always good, and there’s nothing wrong with that, incremental innovation will not save your company, nor will it kill your company. Incremental innovation is safe.

Let’s put that aside for a moment, because I’d argue that it’s not really “innovation” at all, since everyone is already incrementally innovative. Everyone. Seriously, who says “We’re not going to make small improvements to our product to make it better” No one. Those are table stakes. Incremental innovation doesn’t count, since everyone is always going to want to make improvements to their product to make it better, right?

Others go back to Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma: Unless you disrupt yourself, someone is going to do it to you. Innovation is disruption, and it always comes from without, unless you let it, help it, encourage it, to come from within.

It will kill your company because a competitor, likely even from some other industry you may have never even thought of, comes along and can service your customers far better than you can at a much better price. Your customers will leave you and you won’t even be able to respond because it may even be too late. To combat this, you can, and should, disrupt yourself, eventually replacing your current business with something new which may eventually replace your company. How do you disrupt yourself? Where does this innovation come from?

Of course with most disruptive types of innovation there’s always plenty of resistance. One of my colleagues who I worked with at Yahoo! (who wrote the excellent book – Exponential Organizations) calls it the “internal corporate immune system”. Some companies really do treat innovation as a disease or a virus that tries to infect the company. Innovation starts to infect the company, and the immune system says “No, we’re going to do any of that we’re going to shut that thing down because it will disrupt our current business”. Some companies seem less innovative because they are older, bigger, or in specific verticals where innovation lags.

Age, size, vertical. None of it matters. INNOVATION COMES FROM OPEN MIND.

One of my pet projects in ageism. You hear about ageism happening all over, but it seems to be the last remaining prejudice that people don’t really care about. You’ll never see people marching in the streets against ageism – racism for sure, sexism definitely. But ageism? Hardly. What is the difference between a younger person and an older person? What is the specific thing that people have issues with when someone gets older? If you ask me, the top reason people believe someone is too old is how of Open Mind they are. Why is it that some people feel that younger companies and younger people are more open to innovation and new ideas? Their mind is open to new connections, new data and serendipity. Older, in many people’s minds, means not open – no open to new connections, new data, serendipity and in a lot of cases, risk. In reality, for a person, age has nothing to do with it, there are plenty of younger people with not Open Mind, and there are plenty of older ones with Open Mind. Your age has nothing to do with your ability to be of Open Mind.

This is one of the reasons that small young companies seem to be more innovative and nimble, agile, lean and fast and disrupt themselves and they’re happy to do it: they welcome disruptive innovation. Pivoting is no big deal to them, in fact, the better and faster they pivot, they more chances to stay alive. They are open to the idea of doing something slightly to completely different, in order to better serve their customers. In fact, most of them are based on disruptive innovation. Look at Uber, and AirBnB. They have not only embraced disruptive innovation; they are the epitome of disruptive innovation.

When you take a disruptive concept to certain companies you may hear the following: “That is way too disruptive for us there’s no way we could possibly do that.” This is not Open Mind. Innovation cannot take root there.

For example, take the AirBnB model (I rent out my spare room to anyone, properly vetted by the crowd) and apply it to a bank (I rent out my spare cash to anyone, properly vetted by the crowd). Probably too disruptive for a bank – but if the bank doesn’t do it, someone else will. Take the same idea, and go to a large technology company instead. You might get the same answer: for some reason, generally, the larger and older a company gets, the more rules and process are in place, the more jobs depend on keeping the status quo as it is, the less innovation you will see, the more closed mind it is. Just like a human can be of closed mind, so can a company, through its leaders, through its people. As I mentioned above, the more rules, people and process layers on, the more and more the arteries of the company harden, and you eventually end up with atherosclerosis. In a bad enough case, there is nothing you can do, and the patient dies. In fact, some of these companies are already dead, they just don’t know it yet. There are plenty of companies out there who have basically decided that they are not innovators. They are not of Open Mind. They are going to play it safe. Those are the ones that are eventually going to die out. It’s proven.

Do we want to be innovators or not?

I’m saying:

  • It’s got nothing to do with the size the company.
  • It’s got nothing to do the vertical that it’s in.
  • It’s got nothing to do with any of those things.

The key thing is the mindset of the senior management, the mindset of the employees, it’s the mindset of the company. If you have an innovative mindset, then you will innovate. If you are open to innovation: if you are open to new things, then you will innovate. If you are happy to see your own business disrupted and destroyed by new things that you develop, then you will innovate.

You don’t then you won’t. It’s a simple as that.

Others will come to you with some magic incantation or formula. Five phases of innovation of this or that. You don’t need five phases, you don’t need ten steps, you don’t need seven points. You don’t need any of those things.

You just need Open Mind, you need to create the environment to allow innovation, to foster innovation. Let your employees think out of the box, let them have a safe place where they can innovate, discuss, talk, come up with new ideas.

And then build them.

photo credit / eddi van w. / flickr