Stop confusing innovation and disruption

Repeat after me: “innovation and disruption are not the same thing!”

Now write it down on a piece of paper five times. I’ll wait.

This confusion has become puzzling to me, and the more entrenched it gets – the more difficult it is to define what it is your company (or consultant) is doing, as it tackles transformation. Let’s start with the definitions: innovation (wiki, webster), disruption (wiki, webster). As you can see, it is not the same thing, especially when applied to technology, transition to digital, and change management in general.

Innovation typically happens from inside the companies, either as a whole (top-down method), or by department/team, or 1-2 individuals start changing/improving your products/workflow/operations (bottom-up method). It is usually controlled, planned, proactive, and has buy-in. It has a plan. It has a path to success. It *should* have defined goals (“we’re tweaking A, to look/function like B, over a period of T, to achieve X result. And we’re measuring the impact Y along the way – our costs, overhead, adoption, churn, etc.”) The plan, the goals, the measurement – all critical to success.

Innovation can (often) be resisted from inside (in bigger companies it’s more pronounced), but there must be a buy-in at some level of the company. And if a good innovator sticks to that plan, and properly communicates, s/he will be able to execute successfully. Top-down method can work (if everyone is on board with this innovation, and if the company is small/lean enough); parallel departments/teams – can work too – but is more complex and resource-heavy (because the innovating team will put a lot of new pressure on others, which might lead to internal fracturing, and resistance to change). Bottom-up method is more common, and it can be cheaper, too. A new hire brings forward an improvement, which gets tested, reported, adopted, scaled, and communicated higher-up (not always in the same order, and not always starts with junior/new team member). Voila – this is organic innovation. If you have your manager’s support and guidance – it’s a fun process, too. In this scenario, *you* can focus on innovating, maybe even in silo, and your manager will take on the heavy lifting with communicating, resourcing, getting more buy-ins and scaling out.

Disruption does not typically happen from inside. Yes, you might have heard stories about companies disrupting themselves, re-inventing or killing off their best products (“kill your darlings”), and going off in search of new opportunities, revenues, blue oceans). It’s good marketing spin, nothing more. Vast majority of those companies have innovation in their blood. Iterating and measuring is part of their DNA, it’s built into everything they do, so what they’re actually doing is innovating to make their best ideas/products – even better; but to outsiders it looks like disrupting from within, because they’re re-engineering their best performing business models (or products). And we’ve all heard before “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Ugh! That’s gonna stop your progress.

Disruption happens from outside – your competitors, your customers, your service providers change the game – either in product, or workflow, or costs – and present it to you as a matter of fact. There – things are different now – what are you gonna do? There’s no plan, you can only react to that new reality. Disruptors don’t ask permission, and don’t seek buy-in. They know their model works (either on paper on in their MVP, minimal viable product), they’re not wasting any effort educating/planning/onboarding/communicating. They just launch, and hope you cannot catch up, so they can lure away your market, or corner a newly created one.

Innovators work from inside out. Disruptors come at you externally.

Innovators get nurtured or promoted. Disruptors get hired away, and usually, they launch start-ups.

Innovation is proactive. Disruption is reactive, and usually causes bigger chain reactions.

Innovation is ideal for companies, teams. Disruption impacts entire markets, industries, often by surprise.

Innovators, at best – evolve a department/product, or entire company, and make it leaner, stronger, more future-proof, more profitable. At worst – they stall, paralyze, fracture departments, and just waste time and effort. Slower pace, less risk. Disruptors, at best – break industries/markets that need to be broken anyway, and show the others “the better way”, without legacy; and at worst – they destroy them completely, to build something new in their place. Messier, higher risk.

It’s become trendy to chase disruptors, because some companies cannot manage innovation by themselves (too big, calcified). Believe me, if you cannot handle innovation, trying out disruption will wreck you even more. It’s your last resort, your nuclear option. Can you deal with the consequences? Can you control costs/unions/legacy – or are you going to implode from trying something too radical, when a more organic change management failed (sounds rhetorical, doesn’t it)? Maybe you are better off bringing a stronger innovator, or discovering them among your ranks, and giving them room and authority to scale. Most companies already have that talent in-house – unfortunately, that talent is either muzzled, ignored or too busy juggling daily chores, doesn’t have capacity to step back, analyze repeating weaknesses, and put forward a novel idea that will help pivot your product/team/company. Also, there’s this crippling “we’ve always done it this way” line of thinking that stops any innovation in its tracks. And sadly, sometimes it takes a single person in position of power, to derail progress.

I’m biased in this equation – I’m leaning heavier into ‘innovators’ camp – although sometimes when I get resistance or lack of buy-in, or see paralysis in decision-making process, I end up disrupting a little. Pushing. Educating. Showing with numbers and case studies. Usually, with a bit of communication, some homework, and better planning, I can reduce these bottlenecks and continue to innovate without breaking stuff. And given the traditionally reserved, conservative (and small) Canadian market – I believe innovators should be in higher demand here than disruptors, and have more freedom to execute. Unfortunately, I don’t see enough of that. We’ve already got solid disruptors, right under our noses. Stop chasing them, especially if you’re so risk-averse.

Fact is, they’re chasing you, your client base, your weak business model. They already see your blind spots, and missed opportunities. They’re building something better than your current model, as we speak. They have a lot of good data, and they have none of the legacy stuff you’re saddled with. You need to innovate, and reduce that legacy, and make innovation part of your company’s DNA.

So please stop confusing the two concepts. The results might be similar (evolution, forced or organic), but the process, the costs and risks – are wildly different. Pick carefully who you want to lead change in your company. Be transparent and honest with yourself first. Be ready to be uncomfortable. And contact me if you want to find out more about agile innovation and change management.