Disruption is the holy grail in the startup world. 

It's an entire discipline in business school. Figuring out how you'll disrupt your industry is seen as key in devising a business plan, and communicating how you'll disrupt your industry is something most founders obsess over when they're preparing to go in front of investors. 

But what if we're thinking about disruption the wrong way? That's the message of Charlene Li's new book, The Disruption Mindset: Why Some Organizations Fail While Others Transform.

Li is the author of several transformative books on leadership and business, including the New York Times-bestselling Open Leadership and The Engaged Leader. In her latest book, she shares stories from businesses that have successfully transformed, as well as busts some of the myths that have distorted what we think disruption should, or does, look like. 

Here are some of my biggest takeaways from her excellent research. 

True disruption reshapes the power dynamics of an organization. 

We all know disruption is challenging. That's because it requires an absolute dedication to thinking outside the box--to finding a way to truly reshape the industry you're in. 

But that's not the only reason it's so difficult to become a disrupter. 

The truth behind disruption is that it reshapes not just your industry, but the power dynamics of your organization as well. And that's a scary thing for plenty of leaders and employees, no matter how committed to disruption they believe themselves to be. 

Disruption, by definition, upsets the status quo. When we consider that the status quo is, if nothing else, safe and predictable, it makes sense that organizations can struggle to follow through on the shifting power dynamics that occur when an organization embraces disruptive change. 

Executives may have to partner more closely with each other and share information more regularly. A team that once reported to a single department head may now have to report to a group of leaders from different departments. As Li says, "These power shifts are deeply unsettling--not just from a business model standpoint but also from a psychological one. That's where the 'disruption' comes from: our safe, familiar world is turned upside down."

Disruption requires looking fearlessly into the future.

One curious thing about the traditional way of running a company is that leaders, generally, look backward. We make our decisions in the present based on what worked in the past. 

Now, this is an evolutionary human trait, and one that's critical for our survival. But it's certainly not the way to explosive growth for a company. One executive, Li relates, compared it to driving while always looking in the rearview mirror, basing your course on what was behind you. 

To be disruptive, organizations must look fearlessly into the future, creating products and services for the customers of tomorrow--not for their current best or most loyal customers. 

After all, as Li says, "The customers of today look pretty good. Why on earth would you drop them to go after another group of customers, especially if it's not clear if those new customers actually exist? No, no, executives say. It's much safer and better to stay with what you know."

Making that choice to go after the customers of the future requires a boldness and fearlessness, as you're having to give up what's always worked and take a new direction. And just like any bold, fearless undertaking, creating for the future instead of the present means being willing to fail, and fail hard. 

Transformative organizations must create cultures that nurture disruptive growth, rather than protect the status quo. 

As with any organizational mission, culture is key when it comes to achieving disruptive, explosive growth. Leaders must be able to not only exhibit an embrace of disruptive transformation, but also nurture an environment where change is encouraged. 

To do this, Li says, leaders must be able to create a movement within the organization to keep everyone moving toward the same goal.

"If the vision of the desired future state is the flint, a movement is the fuel that keeps the fire burning. There will be times when the road ahead is strewn with boulders. Being part of a movement sustains and energizes people to find a way to climb over those obstacles. When you are part of something bigger than yourself, you set aside your personal pain and discomfort to achieve that shared goal."

To do this, leaders must be open to change themselves, as well as transparent, inspiring, and empowering--a tall order, for sure. But Li lays out specific examples of how leaders can do this, while also describing the four archetypes of disruptive leadership that she's developed: Steadfast Managers, Realist Optimists, Worried Skeptics, and Agent Provocateurs.

Disruptive transformation will never be easy to achieve--if it were, everyone would be doing it. That's also why every leader engaged in the business of transformation needs all the information they can get. The Disruption Mindset should be required reading for every executive looking to blaze a new path for their industry.

Published on: Jan 28, 2020
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