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Inventors are so disruptive

Every company would like to be the next Google, Facebook or Amazon. Yet few of us are ready to deal with the effort and the sacrifice necessary to get to that point. Fewer still would willingly hire the people who created those products, given their personalities and aspirations.
Disruptive innovations have created trillions of dollars in new markets over the last few decades. Disruptive innovations may be either new products/services that slowly create vast new markets or replace established products or both. As an example, Kodak, the king of old-style photography was toppled by the digital substitute, despite its efforts to stay ahead while ignoring the slowly emerging digital technology.
Disruptive innovations are getting a lot of well-deserved attention among growth-conscious businesses for two reasons:
  • Corporations want to capture and rule vast new markets to ensure systemic corporate growth.
  • They want to protect against potential fatal threats to their current markets that are vulnerable to disruptive innovations just around the corner.
The individuals behind these innovations are often fascinating and difficult characters: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Sky Dayton (Earthlink), Marc Andreessen (Netscape), Jerry Yang/David Filo (Yahoo), Larry Page/Sergey Brin (Google), and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) have all been successful but also controversial. These “disruptive” innovators gave us innovations that disrupted the market for established businesses and/or created totally new unforeseen markets.

From the individual to the idea

These ideas began with individuals, who, by chasing a personal vision with generous helpings of personal determination, perseverance, tenacity, and focus, translated disruptive ideas into large-scale commercial success. Individual innovators are often the engines of disruptive innovations. They have brought to market bold new ideas or products/services that others considered laughable, impossible, or uncommercial.
During a recent lecture, I asked my students: If someone who worked at the research labs of one of the conventional cellphone manufacturers had proposed a new phone idea identical to the original iPhone, what might have been his or her chance of getting the idea approved? Most commented that the iPhone, compared to the norm, was heavy, too big, too expensive, looked too different, and worked differently. It would have been rejected outright at the lab level. Yet Apple’s iPhone made history; the idea needed a disruptive champion innovator such as Steve Jobs.
In 1977, someone told the former head of DEC (then a minicomputer leader) that a couple of guys were introducing a small microcomputer that could be used in homes.  Computers were exclusively used in offices and businesses then. He was quoted as saying: “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” Visionary ideas get laughed away or derided too often.
Yet businesses hunting for disruptive innovations have not focused their attention as much on disruptive innovators. Without disruptive thinker-innovators, there will be few disruptive innovations.
Tests for disruptive innovators
Disruptive innovators make fascinating reading. The 2011 book on Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is an example. A study from published materials is revealing. Disruptive innovators:
  • withstand amused rejection for a long time (let’s call it the “laugh test”);
  • handle 99.9% opposition or worse;
  • are paranoid about threats to their work and markets (like Andrew Grove of Intel);
  • know that If they can’t make their idea work, no one could;
  • know that if they work for an employer, the employer may have no interest in their idea. Therefore, Steve Jobs recommended owning a company in order to have total control. When he was fired from Apple, he just founded more companies;
  • know that if the success of their idea depended on others entirely, it might soon die. (Sir James Dyson, inventor of a now world-renowned vacuum cleaner, made over 5,000 prototypes.);
  • know that making the idea work is their goal and responsibility, and no one else may care enough, or would know how to pull it off.
Businesses, if they are serious about embracing disruptive technologies, must not only identify disruptive innovators but must also develop a corporate culture to accommodate them and let their ideas evolve to their natural conclusion.
It needs emphasizing that this is a daunting task. These individuals aren’t going to fit in easily with corporate rules and strategies. They may not work the hours you want, they may not move on to other projects, they may not respond well to what they’re told or to accepted norms of behavior in the workplace, or stick to guidelines on when to take up or drop an idea. Most corporations would most likely screen out such behavior at the interview stage: no surprise that many of these individuals set up their own companies.
Who said disruptive innovation is easy stuff? Remember Mr. Dyson’s 5,000 prototypes. But if you are hunting for disruptive innovations, you must learn to embrace such disruptive innovators: you can’t have one without the other.

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