“Disruptive thinking” and business survival

Technology + Innovation Equals Success

You may have heard the term ‘disruptive thinking.’ It describes a process whereby revolutionary ways of doing business are incubated and implemented. In other words, it refers to a ‘paradigm shift’ that can transform an industry, even an entire economy.

I prefer the word, ‘reinvention,’ to ‘disruptive thinking‘ because this process is mainly disruptive for one’s competitors, less so for the company introducing the change. In fact, disruptive innovation is generally smoothly accommodated within well-led, talent-rich organizations. Success also requires realistic business priorities and an internal organization that nurtures innovation.

Because the word ‘disruptive’ is negative, this concept can inhibit business leaders from supporting timely change. Businesses that can’t envision moving beyond the status quo are setting themselves up for failure.  This mindset is euphemistically called ‘legacy thinking,’ which sounds harmless enough, but is, in fact, a strong predictor of decline. Companies that complacently accept slow innovation may find it impossible to catch up with smaller, more agile competitors. ‘Legacy organizations,’ then have to reinvent/’disrupt’ themselves overnight to keep afloat, often losing market share and personnel in the process.

Fortunately, an increasing number of businesses are harnessing digital technology in environments that encourage innovation.

Examples of disruptive thinking breakthroughs

If you Google information about Airbnb, Uber, and Alibaba, you’ll find fascinating accounts describing how this revolutionary process unfolds. These companies utilized digital technology in previously overlooked ways to upend the hotel, taxi and retail industries.

A key commonality among such success stories is much-improved, better-designed customer service. When similar initially promising initiatives fail, it’s often because customer service isn’t upgraded to track ever-changing consumer demand. As change accelerates, business growth requires big data analytics to gain granular insight into both customers and employees.

Next, I’ll outline the characteristics of businesses that encourage innovation and adapt most quickly to change. While older, established organizations may require a more structured, less agile organizational model, they have other strategies to improve their odds of survival.

Characteristics of adaptive, agile organizations–part A

So far, I described how businesses do best when they integrate the latest, best quality digital technology with a dedication to innovation (aka disruptive thinking).

Agile vs. Legacy organizational structures

Startup and medium-sized lean organizations adapt to change more quickly and effectively than larger, older organizations because they embody a leaner, more collaborative approach to doing business. Their reason d’être, to begin with, is industry/market transformation. By contrast, established ‘legacy’ organizations often fail to recognize and adapt to disruptive change, a problem compounded by their slow-to-respond bureaucratic structures.

While traditional companies can learn from startup success, they can’t copy that business model entirely. This is because they need a command hierarchy to facilitate top-down decision making. At the same time, organizational development research supports the need within ‘legacy’ businesses for complementary ‘bottom-up’ open communication channels from all levels of personnel. Otherwise, how can leaders be informed and responsive to what’s happening throughout an organization?

A Flat, Team-Based Collaborative Culture

A company’s culture is a combination of history, vision/mission guiding values, and formal/informal ways of doing work. New, adaptive, more agile organizations have the advantage of creating all those elements from the ground up. By comparison, older companies undergoing reorganization or re-engineering have to invest heavily in planning and implementation.

Flourishing, innovation-driven startups are characterized by open, ‘cross-silo’ communication and collaboration. Their employees are (or should be) carefully screened both for technical and interpersonal skills, (aka, emotional intelligence–a stronger predictor of business success than IQ). Without sophisticated interpersonal skills, the most brilliant and talented new hire can easily lower group morale, undermine productivity and reduce the quality of outcomes. –I’ve seen this unfortunate outcome in previous work environment

  • QUICK TIP #1–Evaluate your hiring procedures. Make sure you have a carefully conceived, behaviorally based hiring system that reveals everything you need to know about candidates. (I plan to cover this issue in a future Insights article).
  • QUICK TIP #2– The latest approach to brainstorming adds a new step: individual team members write out and submit lists of ideas to an opportunity or challenge BEFORE the team meets to discuss the pros and cons of different solutions. This encourages greater participation, expands options and yields better outcomes.

Next, I’ll define additional qualities of adaptive, agile organizations.

Making Your Company More Agile and Adaptive–Part B

Agile, lean organizations thrive on change, catalyzing the transformation of entire industries, up to and including the world economy. By comparison, established, legacy companies require a more hierarchical, less decentralized organizational structure. However, the most successful among them have adopted agile strategies with measurable improvements to ROI.

Regardless of your product or service, assess whether the following change strategies might help your business–

Question the Status Quo

Closely evaluate the pros and cons of all your processes, product and service options. Get detailed feedback about what’s working and what isn’t from employees via focus groups and online questionnaires. (Be sure to protect their privacy to ensure objective responses). One classic example of success–Apple’s transformation from a struggling computer manufacturer to the world’s largest, most profitable company (an edge they’re beginning to lose). The company reinvented itself from within.

Develop a Plan

“Be reasonably aspirational” in conceiving and evaluating your options. Organization development business consultants with a demonstrated record of successful interventions can give you invaluable feedback about the most promising strategies for your business. –They can also help you develop metrics to define and measure your change criteria at Time 1, before implementation.

Reinforce the Benefits of Change

Clearly communicate your long-term vision and the benefits of planned changes to your employees at all levels. This is reinforced by training, internal media and coaching. Organizational development research reveals that 44% of employees don’t understand what they are expected to do in their respective roles to implement a change initiative and 33% don’t understand it. –Remember, it’s human nature to resist change. Make the benefits of impending change tangible and exciting for employees.

Establish Short Term Goals

Implement changes one step at a time with short-term goals that are achievable and manageable. Establish all necessary channels of communication with your employees so they can give you feedback about their challenges. Keep them informed about your tactical adjustments.

Measure Results

After the change is completed, do a Time 2 evaluation of results. Be sure to repeat the process in following years to fine tune future improvements.