3 ways to harness the power of disruption

Ellie Mae Experience conference: How to break out of predictive thinking

Crystal ball

Industries are being disrupted every day with new ideas that don’t just challenge the status quo but represent real paradigm shifts. The pace of that disruption is accelerating and the consequences for any industry are clear — success belongs to the disruptors.

So how can you encourage more disruptive thinking in your company? Luke Williams, author of Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business, challenged an audience of mortgage lenders at Ellie Mae’s Experience conference on Tuesday to counter balance the traditional sustaining leadership model with a disruptive leadership model that rewards provocation.

“Organizations can reach a certain level of success and they are happy with the way things are going,” Williams said. “There’s nothing wrong with success but the flip side is complacency, which is the most dangerous thing in business.

“If you’re only embracing incremental change, instead of disruptive change, your path becomes narrower and narrower. By the time you’re at the end of that path your customers have forsaken you.”

Williams cited the example of Blockbuster — wildly successful at the time — shunning the idea of Netflix when they were presented with it. And Blackberry, the symbol of success a few years ago, now akin to the Motorola brick phone.

But creating disruption isn’t easy, and in fact, runs counter to some of our most cherished business practices. For instance, disruption does not go to data for inspiration. Data is great, Williams says, but true disruption uses human imagination, not data.

“For disruptive thinking, don’t start with a reasonable prediction. You want unreasonable disruption.”

Traditional business thinking starts with a problem to solve, but disruption turns that on its head.

“The problem with problems is that they’re seductively clear, screaming for attention. But the richest areas for the future of your business are the unbroken aspects of your business — disruption looks at things that are not broken,” Williams said.

To start thinking disruptively, Williams outlined three parts of your business to consider:

  • Interaction clichés: Identify how your customers interact with your product or service
  • Product clichés: What are the traits of your product?
  • Pricing clichés: How much do people expect to pay, or what is the payment model?

Using these as starting points, think about the opposite for each. Wiliams used the example of soda for the product cliché. The traits of soda are that it is inexpensive, sweet and the advertising was highly aspirational. We’re so familiar with soda, all of that seems very reasonable. There wasn’t really a problem with soda, and if there was, making it expensive and bitter probably wouldn’t seem like the answer.

But disruptive thinking by companies like RedBull have turned that product on its head: they produce a more expensive product that doesn’t taste sweet and isn’t about refreshment. Thinking about the opposite of your company’s customer interaction, product or pricing can result in surprising insights.

Once you start revealing the clichés surrounding your business model, Williams suggests the asking yourself the following:

1. What can you invert? Look at inverse relationships to what you are doing now, for example, creating energy drinks instead of soda. 

2. What can you deny? For example, if renting cars requires people to rent by the day, consider renting by the hour, like Zipcar.

3. What can you scale? Exaggerate the current properties and quantities, like the company Little Miss Mismatched, which has sold $20 million of mismatched socks in sets of three.

Disruptive thinking requires imagination and courage. As Williams said, if during brainstorming everyone agrees that you have a great idea, it's probably not disruptive. 

"Give yourself and your business deliberate permission to be wrong, so you can see the right answer at the end," Williams said. 


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