What's that in the air? The faint whiff of a groundbreaking app du jour, the buzz from a business model flipping its pay structure seemingly overnight, the sense that technology has changed your industry forever - it must be disruption, come to visit you and shake you out of your status quo.

Watching an industry evolve can be a bittersweet feeling. As an entrepreneur, you got in the game to shake it up, but when it's a competitor orchestrating a sea change, it can make you feel like the last kid picked for the recess kickball team.

Even the savviest founders aren't always the first ones out of the gate with the next big idea. But the best ones don't panic. They learn from what their fellow entrepreneurs are doing, sure, but they also know that the key to staying one step ahead and not letting new, shiny innovation swallow them whole lies not in replicating the technology of their peers, but in digging in deeper with their audience.

Breaking the waves of change

It's all in the customer's eyes. Or, more accurately, their habits. Are they getting what they want, faster? How has their journey been expedited from the moment they get their first inkling to fix a pain point to the moment they purchase their remedy (and beyond)?

Technology has effectively made mundane and complex processes simpler in industries that many never saw coming: The way our dentists work. The way we give to charity. The way we travel. All have been disrupted by tech that distilled either internal or customer habits down into their simplest form.

The reality of innovation is that to define it, you have to see it. And unfortunately for many entrepreneurs, they only see it with the benefit of hindsight. The good news for more established companies is that pivoting based off of new information about the marketplace is nothing new - it got you through the growth stage to begin with.

Think of disruption as one big, jarring piece of user feedback on your industry as a whole and you'll have a good jumping off point to make the necessary adjustments.

We, the entrepreneurs, in order to form a more perfect world....

When your industry is thrust into change, you have only one acceptable outcome: product transformation. Get excited, embrace it - these opportunities to grow don't come around every day. Stay one step ahead by first taking a big step back and doing an audit on yourself.

First, assess your current customer experience. What's missing from making it more seamless? Draw up a roadmap of your product compared to your newest, flashy competitor's. Where are the forks in that road? Put yourself back in the mindset of your customer and ask where the pain points, however small, exist on your road.

Then, while still occupying the mindspace of your audience, think about what would delight you at each step of the journey. What opportunities exist to be surprised, either at how easy something was, or how cheap it was, or how much relevant content was delivered?

Once you've taken over the brains of your audience, jump back into your own. How does your current business vision line up with this new age of disruption? If your strategies are sound, but you know they'll ultimately take you away from where your audience is headed, think of some new ones. You should have an understanding of what new thing you want to create, then layer on how you'll get there.

There's no such thing as excessive assessment. So keep it going.

Once you've established where you're headed, assess both your current products and services you offer and the white space in your industry. This is where the executional ideas will begin to sprout. Always keep your audience at the center of your opportunity research. Follow the social conversations, rely on analytics, continue to create new and more nuanced buyer personas for your ideal, "delighted" user. In other words, take action like you did when you were in your early stages.

If your data is sound you'll begin to see ways to implement your idea. Start modeling the different attributes of your new product or service that you think will increase the lifetime value of your clients. That includes revenue models.

Since the goal is product transformation, you're going to have to create something new eventually. When that time comes, embrace your inner little guy once again. Concept designs, MVPs, testing, validating - they're back, and they're more important than ever. In fact, you should always be testing new concepts and ideas anyway, even if you don't feel the crunch of sudden disruption.

Never be reactionary if you can help it.

It's important to make adjustments quickly when you're in the middle of a sea change, but rushing to market with the wrong idea will be the end of you. Trust your audience and trust your insight into their journey and you'll find that you succeed more often than not at disrupting yourself.

Published on: May 31, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.