As researchers at a strategic insights agency, my colleagues and I at FACE are proponents of change: we help create new things, or a new way of thinking, by finding a deeper level of understanding. From communications strategy to design innovation projects, our approach entails observing, listening to, and connecting with people to cultivate ideas capable of challenging the status quo – the limiting norms that govern an organization or the category in which it operates. You might say the aim of our research is to help clients become disruptive.
Clayton Christensen originally coined the term ‘disruptive innovation’ in “The Innovators Dilemma” (1997), and within the last few years disruption as a strategic imperative has rippled through the business zeitgeist and taken root in the culture.
From innovation thesis to digital-era mantra, the concept is now a meme, a convenient way of talking about how to keep up – and the fear of falling behind – in a world of constant change. Only recently have critics emerged, questioning the meaning of disruption and its legitimacy as a strategy. In a New Yorker piece from earlier this year, The Disruption Machine, Jill Lepore shares her skeptical view on the subject: “…despite its futurism, [disruption] is atavistic. It’s a theory…founded on a profound anxiety…and shaky evidence.” She goes on to point out that disruptiveness is not a measure of true advancement, or any indication of sustainable success, for a brand or society at large: “Replacing ‘progress’ with ‘innovation’ skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices are getting newer and newer.”
Lepore’s argument is sound and provocative. It raises big questions about “the gospel of innovation” that emanates from Silicon Valley and galvanizes hopeful entrepreneurs across the globe. Is disruption, then, still a tenable objective? Yes, but it is time to reframe the mainstream take on what it means to be disruptive and how to make it happen. Here’s a quick guide for getting started:
1. Determine what you’re actually trying to disrupt, and why
Sound obvious? Maybe, although there seems to be a growing stream of briefs floating around that call for disruption without any well defined aim. For example, the goal should be to disrupt a market, or perhaps your organization’s creative process – not consumer behavior. Identifying and developing ways to satisfy latent demand can indeed lead to behavior change; however, that’s ultimately an outcome, not a strategy. The intent must be to alter a system that’s failing to deliver on that demand, not to force consumers into a new mode of experience. It can be counterproductive to invest in shaking things up when either internal energy is unfocused or the external landscape is not ripe for a shake.
2. Hone your understanding of the landscape you plan to disrupt, and the constituents you plan to serve by doing so
The rhetoric around disruption can suggest that market-shifting product and service innovations are born from instinct, rather than cultivated from insight collected in field. Steve Jobs famously remarked that consumers don’t know what they want. It’s perhaps risking heresy but I’d offer an alternative view: consumers don’t do a good job of articulating what they want on their own. There’s a difference: your team may not be filled with prescient strategists and designers, but you’re more than capable of observing and interpreting what’s happening outside of your organization to activate internal ingenuity.
At FACE, we’re firm believers in the power of anthropology to inspire and guide innovation. In addition to face-to-face methods, we have developed technologies to capture and decode consumer thinking, including online research communities, a mobile ethnography tool, and Pulsar, a best-in-class social data intelligence platform.
These tools empower us, and our clients, to lead by listening. In this sense disruption is less akin to interruption as it is to conversation, in which brands are challenged to move the discussion forward in new and interesting directions.
3. Design an ideation process that breaks through norms
The definition of “disrupt” is to alter or destroy an existing structure. This starts internally: personnel, atmosphere, and inspiration stimulus need to converge in new ways to catalyze new thinking. At FACE we’ve pioneered a workshop method called co-creation, which takes our clients out of their methodological comfort zone in order to spark bigger ideas with more depth and longevity. Co-creation unleashes the creative potential of consumers, experts and brand stakeholders, and combines collaborative ideation, strategic planning and illustrative design. The process pushes teams to:
• Ideate with flow: there is no divorce between insights gathering and ideation for strategic or new product development. They live in the same time and place.
• Foster productive tension: facilitators find momentum in clashing people and beliefs to propel ideation forward and move everyone toward the same goal.
This method has a proven track record for creating successful innovation ideas, faster and cheaper than in the traditional linear NPD model.
Truly disruptive products and services are simplifiers at the core, but getting there is far from simple. Developing successful ideas takes a strategic approach and profound insight. Disruption’s rise to buzzword-status brought on a perception that disruption itself is a strategy that promises big results. This is misleading: if your team wants to catch the disruption wave, question what it will take to get the timing right and achieve a balanced ride to actual progress. We hope these 3 points here will help you do exactly that in your company’s innovation process.
If you’d like to find out more about co-creation methodologies then download our white paper entitled “The Co-creation Revolution“, which explores the basics of co-creation. Also, see how we implement this methodology by reviewing our study with Axe Skincare.