Jumpstarting Innovation: Using Disruption to Your Advantage

Fostering innovation in a mature company can often seem like a swim upstream—the needs of the existing business often overwhelm attempts to create something new. Harvard Business School professor Lynda M. Applegate shows how one of the forces that threatens established companies can also be a source of salvation: disruptive change. Plus: Innovation worksheets. Key concepts include:
  • Jumpstarting innovation is a critical business imperative. Executives realize that radical change is needed but do not feel equipped to make such change.
  • Disruptions in the business environment allow new entrants or forward-thinking established players to introduce innovations that transform the way companies do business and consumers behave.
  • Disruptive changes that might serve as the source of innovation include technology shifts, new business models, industry dynamics, global opportunities, and regulatory changes.
by Lynda M. Applegate

Mature companies understand that to compete today they need to innovate. But finding sources of innovation while still paying attention to the current business can be a struggle. The good news, says Harvard Business School professor Lynda M. Applegate, is that one of the forces that threatens established companies can also be a source of salvation: disruptive change.

Applegate should know. Her current research and teaching focus on the challenges of building new ventures and leading radical business innovation in the face of significant market, technological, and regulatory turbulence. She also teaches courses on innovation and building new ventures to seasoned executives in the School's Executive Education Program.

This excerpt from a recent presentation encourages executives to leverage disruptive change as a platform for innovation.

Innovation is not an option today. The HBS executive programs on jumpstarting innovation that I chair for executives in large firms and owners of small to midsize businesses are all oversubscribed. This interest in innovation is confirmed by an IBM study in 2006 that asked over 750 CEOs of the world's largest and most respected firms, "What's the extent of change that you need to make in the next 2 years?"

The answer surprised them. They knew that innovation was important, but 65 percent of the CEOs said they were planning significant change over the next 2 years, and another 22 percent said they planned to implement moderate change. More importantly, when the CEOs were asked "What's your past level of success in managing significant change?" only 15 percent said they had been "very successful." Another 15 percent said they had had "little or no success."

Clearly, jumpstarting innovation is a critical business imperative. Executives realize that radical change is needed, and they do not feel equipped to make those changes.

Disruptive Change As A Source Of Innovation

Why do we see this increasing interest? One of the things we know is that the interest in innovation is being spurred by radical change and disruption that is going on in the business environment. Indeed, almost 50 percent of the CEOs surveyed in the IBM study said the source of innovation was from changes in the business environment. Less than 20 percent reported that innovation came from internal R&D.

Disruptions in the business environment cause economic shifts that destabilize industries, companies, and even countries. They allow new entrants or forward-thinking established players to introduce innovations—in products, markets, or processes—that transform the way companies do business and consumers behave.

What's happening in another part of the world that you could adopt and adapt in your environment?

These disruptive innovations are not just novel inventions. Successful innovators take ideas and turn them into opportunities by adding a business model that creates sustainable economic value for all stakeholders. They then go one step further and exploit the opportunity by creating a sustainable business.

So what are some of the disruptors that innovators are exploiting to create value? As you review the list below, take a moment to stop and think: What are some of the disruptive changes in your industry that might serve as the source of innovation for you and your company?

Technology: What are the key emerging technologies, and how are they being used inside and outside your industry, company, and region to create proprietary advantage?

Business Models: Are there new business models emerging that you can adopt or adapt to deliver radical improvements in the way you and others do business? Will these improvements drive profitable growth by creating proprietary advantages in the way you do business? Can you expand not just your "share of market" but also your "share of wallet" by adding new business models—for example, if you currently have a product business, can you add information, services, or solutions? Can you expand into adjacent businesses by either taking over activities that used to be done by someone else in your industry, expanding into new markets, or adding new products?

Industry Dynamics: Are there fragmented industries where significant value can be delivered through consolidation? Are there shifts in power (e.g., entry or exit of a key player or consolidation of several players) that threaten your existing position or create opportunities to partner in your existing business or enter a new one?

Globalization: What's happening in another part of the world that you could adopt or adapt in your environment? What are the proprietary advantages that you have based on your access to people, information, materials, or capital? Are new markets or businesses emerging in other parts of the world that create opportunities or threats?

Offshoring and Outsourcing: Are there opportunities to create value by outsourcing or offshoring activities that you currently perform inside your organization? Are there activities that you currently source from outside that you should be doing inside to create proprietary advantage?

Regulatory, Macroeconomic, Political, Societal: Are there impending (or early) shifts in regulation, political power, or society that threaten to disrupt entrenched power bases and provide opportunities for new entrants?

As you reviewed the list of disruptive changes, you probably noticed that they can be viewed from 2 very different perspectives—as an opportunity or as a threat. In fact, entrepreneurs often view disruptive change as a source of opportunity. When they see a disrupted business environment—whether that disruption is from new technologies, new business models, or new regulations—they ask, "How can I leverage these changes to create value?"

Disruptions in the business environment cause economic shifts that destabilize industries, companies, and even countries.

But established companies often approach innovation and disruption much differently. Having worked hard to align strategy and organization to support the current business, they develop tunnel vision, encouraging employees, customers, suppliers, and partners to work together to deliver today's business results. Even when disruptive opportunities are identified, tightly aligned organizations, business models, and industry relationships make it tough to respond quickly and effectively. As a result, executives in established firms often frame disruption as a threat. When they see changes happening, they work to defend their existing business model and ask, "How can I insulate against these disruptive threats and preserve my current business model?"

Turn Disruptive Change Into A Source Of Ideas

Jeff Timmons, whose book New Venture Creation has been a bestseller for over a decade, calls good ideas a "tool in the hands of an entrepreneur." Indeed, finding good ideas is the first step in the innovation process. Successful serial entrepreneurs are able to recognize patterns before an opportunity takes shape. They search for ideas at the intersection of markets, industries, and emerging technologies. They look for disruptors that will "unfreeze" a stable industry and the companies that compete within them. They look for business models that worked well in one market and can be adapted and applied in another. They recognize that they must listen to customers but must sometimes educate the marketplace to new approaches. Entrepreneurs learn to identify ideas by raising their head above day-to-day operations and expanding their vision. They then prioritize and narrow the many ideas they generate into a potential opportunity that addresses a compelling problem for customers who are able—and willing—to pay. The following guidelines can help you leverage disruption to turn ideas into opportunities to create sustainable business advantage.

  • Listen to—and learn from—the market: Identify sources of significant problems that cannot be solved using today's product and service offerings. Focus first on the problem—not the solution. Be sure that you don't just listen to your current customers. They have the same tunnel-vision problems that you do and may even actively push to keep you from considering new approaches. Keep in mind Henry Ford's classic comment as he struggled to take advantage of new technologies in the early 1900s: "If I asked people what they wanted," he said, "they would have said, 'Faster horses.'
  • Expand your horizons: Set aside a portion of every week for broadening your perspective. Identify important global and local trends that signal potential revolutionary shifts in customer behavior. Look for new business models and technologies that can radically transform product, market, and industry economics and power. Benchmark inside and outside your industry, remembering to benchmark the rate of change in value delivered—not just a single point in time. Clarify and challenge the biases and business models in your firm and in your industry.
  • Identify potential disruptors that could be a source of opportunity: Identify people with a broad range of perspectives on potential disruptive opportunities. Working individually, use the worksheets in Exhibit 1 to analyze disruptive trends within the key categories discussed earlier.
  • Select ideas for further evaluation: Now bring the individuals together. Working as a team, have each person share his or her analysis of disruptors. Discuss what you have learned from the analysis and brainstorm business ideas that leverage disruptors to create value for you and for your customers, partners, and other stakeholders. Identify the potential value of promising ideas and a process for prioritizing and choosing among them. Use the worksheets in Exhibit 2 to do a "back-of-the-envelope" assessment of each idea.
  • Turn promising ideas into opportunities: Identify a promising opportunity and develop a business plan that highlights both long-term and short-term ("go-to-market") opportunity. Define product-market positioning at entry and the capabilities and resources required. Define a plan for evolving strategy and capabilities to exploit long-term value potential.
  • Implement to reduce risk and manage uncertainty: Successful entrepreneurs are not risk seekers. Instead, they have learned to manage risk by identifying key assumptions and uncertainties in their business plan and then staging commitments and implementation to reduce uncertainty while building a sustainable business. Established firms must adopt a similar approach to risk management when venturing into uncharted territories. You can't simply use the same approach that you use to incrementally evolve a mature business. Some firms create separate new venture groups responsible for leading radical business innovation and disruptive change. Others maintain a closer connection to established business groups to facilitate future integration of new businesses into the established business. We've seen examples of success using both approaches. The key is to become skilled at the entrepreneurial innovation process as you search for ideas in the face of disruption, turn ideas into opportunities, choose opportunities to pursue, successfully launch new businesses, and grow and evolve them to create sustainable proprietary advantage.
  • Collaborate! Innovations that matter arise from perspectives that cross boundaries.

Leveraging Disruption

Executives around the world have spent the past decades redesigning processes and restructuring their firms to meet the challenges of operating in a more dynamic, hypercompetitive world. But many have been forced to face the grim reality that the decades ahead will demand even more radical change. As disruptive technologies, business models, regulatory environments, and societal norms destabilize markets, industries, and organizations, executives are finding that incremental innovation is not enough.

The good news is that these disruptive shifts are the perfect place to search for opportunities. The key is knowing where to look, how to interpret what you see, and then how to manage uncertainty as you exploit opportunity. I wish you success in your journey.