Disruption fatigue demands a new approach to being disruptive

Disruption has a new face.
Disruption has a new face.
Image: Reuters/Bernadett Szabo
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If you travel across the globe, you’ll likely notice that tech innovation looks different depending on region and culture.

In the US, the lever for innovation is disruption. Yet in Singapore, where I led HP’s Asia Pacific region for three years, the tech industry is spurred by constant revolutionary innovation and explosive market growth that persistently fuels an emerging, diverse middle class.

After relocating back to the Americas, I’m acutely aware of how different innovation is on this side of the world. The US and Canada have fairly well-established, stable markets which experience periodic upheaval. While tech disruptors have become a common phenomenon, they are still largely seen as outliers.

With today’s disruptor fatigue, US business leaders should recognize a simple truth: Disruption does not need to be disruptive, at least in the traditional sense, to be effective.

Think about how Uber successfully disrupted the taxi industry, which was shackled by its reputation for dirty cars and grumpy drivers. Or consider Airbnb, which edged out impersonal hotels and cramped rooms at high prices. Consumers benefit from disruption when it delivers services they need but aren’t getting from a company or an industry.

But disruption for the sake of disruption is starting to wear on the consumers it allegedly serves. Look at the biggest complaints facing the smartphone and PC market today—consumers don’t want constant next-generation product introductions every quarter; they want a a reliable device with meaningful updates that fill gaps in their user experience.

Disruption as it exists today cannot meet the need for richer, conscientious innovation in our products and services. True innovation proactively meets needs not yet acknowledged and sends waves of positive impact throughout an industry and beyond.

If we want to truly harness the power of innovation, we need to rethink how we approach transformation and growth altogether by implementing a new model for change—one that is thoughtful and responsible.

As innovators aim to purposefully meet these expectations, I’ve come to recognize three recurring themes to what I call conscientious disruption:

Nothing that’s unsustainable can meaningfully disrupt

With sustainable impact as a business imperative in today’s landscape, disruptors must ensure their disruption meets human needs first. This means keeping people and the communities they live in at the core of sustainability efforts. It means innovating alongside people, not at them.

Take, for instance, HP’s recent installation of a plastic washing line in a community in Haiti, rather than closer to the product manufacturing site. This has allowed HP to locally produce recycled plastics for its products, while contributing to a cleaner environment and helping Haiti expand its position in the international plastics market.

The Business and Sustainable Development Commission finds that sustainable business—which it defines as a business that has a positive impact on the environment or society—has the potential to unlock $12 trillion in new market value, repair economic systems, and increase employment by up to 380 million jobs by 2030.

Plus, sustainability is increasingly important to prospective talent. In a study, 89% of companies surveyed rated a sustainability strategy as “important” or “very important” in creating a positive employer brand.

Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer finds that 58% of the general working population looks to employers to be a trustworthy source of information and to take action on the issues they care about. Additionally, because a majority of consumers are now buying based on belief, it’s crucial even from a profit perspective that organizations tap into the convictions of their consumers.

The biggest impact is made with the most foresight (not the most disruption)

An integral component of disruption is the capacity to broaden the realm of what is possible. Disruptors should take an approach centered around creating shared value and implementing a constant feedback loop within the communities where an organization operates.

By engaging with consumers at every opportunity, businesses can help define—not assume—consumer needs. No one predicted the extent to which artificial intelligence is now impacting entire workforces, social media’s link to depression, or the cultural fallout of unfettered access to information on the internet.

We need disruptors to be judicious. They should still value speed to market, but not at the cost of malignant consequences or security vulnerabilities.

Diversity is the best incubator for innovation

When a company culture is a melting pot of ideas, perspectives, experiences, and expectations.

Disruption grows out of a freedom to think, challenge, experiment—and fail. It happens naturally when innovation and entrepreneurship are everyone’s job and elemental to an organization’s culture.

Diversity speeds innovation, drives higher financial returns, improves brand presence, and helps attract and retain top talent.

It wasn’t until new voices stepped into the picture that we realized how much better AI could be when diverse perspectives played a role in its development. Rather than rushing to market as fast as possible, we’ve discovered that a slower, more thoughtful and thorough approach can lead to more effective innovation.

Establish a space for employees to challenge ideas, thus reducing chances of confirmation bias. Proactively check for attunement to whatever is happening in the market. Invite employees to spend time each week exploring new technologies. Pair unusual functions for collaboration exercises to elicit a fresh take on an old challenge.

Companies cannot let their fear of being disrupted force them into stagnation, but they also cannot let disruption distract them from what’s most important. When products and services are built around unconscious consumerism and novelty—and customer experience is not prioritized—value is diminished.

Charting new territories has always come with inherent risk. For one, the pace of disruption today often means regulators cannot keep up. It is incumbent upon business leaders to be mindful in the way they upend an industry or market. In short, we need to transform for the long-term—taking into account what happens after markets have been thrown off track and the disruption dust has settled. We need to think less about overturning existing systems and more about how we can create stable environments that foster innovation.