Rehabilitating Disruption Innovation

17 July 2014

Recently there has been a lot of criticism in the press (New Yorker and Observer to name a few) about disruptive innovation. I understand the evident frustration of the New Yorker article author, Jill Lepore and others who see a hard, hubristic and, many times, heartless disruptive innovation “scene". However, in 15 years of supporting major organisations, leaders, parents, spouses and individuals to have breakthroughs, I believe there is a very different view of disruptive or breakthrough innovation available; one aligned with how creativity in nature and human systems works. Given the vast challenges we face as a global society, and the depression and anxiety which impact so many of us individually - both of which  breakthroughs  can solve - I would like to rehabilitate ‘disruption’ for us all; before it gets consigned to the waste bin of business fads.

All innovation, like evolution, is problem-solving. We use creativity to find solutions to the challenges we face. Disruptive - or as we call it, 'breakthrough' - creativity is not about breaking the old for the sake of personal gain. It as actually about ensuring the things we do remain valuable in a constantly changing world. Ie. We are unlikely to succeed if we use dating habits from high school in later life; or marketing strategies from the 80s in a Facebook-driven world; or hierarchical business models from the 50s to in the ‘sharing economy’. Breakthrough innovation is focused on breaking through our old assumptions, conventions, myths, narratives and habits to ensure we stay relevant, appropriate and 'fitted'. This is not about fads (like the size of floppy discs) but staying in tune with the deep, structural changes in the DNA of culture and society; and changes in our own human potential.

Evolution, of course, is also about fittedness (as opposed to just fitness); organisms must fit with the emerging context if they want to survive. Fittedness, then, is a law of nature. Therefore surely it is the duty, perhaps most important duty, of every leader - whether of a 2 person social enterprise of multinational behemoth - to ensure their organisation stays relevant? This is not simply about profit, although disruption has, sadly, been hijacked by a lot of clueless and compassionless VCs and entrepreneurs in the Valley. This is actually about ensuring that employees and users continue to value and nurture each organisation it into the future. If anything, breakthrough innovation is more important to social and public institutions, as it can ensure they evolve towards the needs, aspirations and values of the emergent citizenry rather than continue to operate as they did when many were invented in the Ages of Empire, Slavery and Industry. Breakthroughs may afford us some chance of solving the spiralling crises hitting us all over the globe, which 'business-as-usual' cannot hope to overcome. We cannot continue to pour money into welfare, health and education systems that were designed for a different world and expect them to miraculously work.

We celebrate when a Pablo Picasso or Hilary Mantel breaks through the conventions of the past to reach a new height of artistic expression; likewise we celebrate when a parent breaks with their own childhood to engage more more creatively and lovingly with their own kids. So why would we look with disdain at organisations who break through out-dated assumptions to invent new, better, models that are more sustainable, more empowering and more democratic? Almost all truly breakthrough innovations of the last 20 years have given power to the edges; and reduced stress in the system - whether we are talking Kickstarter, ZipCar, AiBnB or

Contrary to this being the relentless logic of the market invading all areas of public life, I believe the breakthroughs we can all have when we listen deeply to the systems we touch - and the explore and sustain ideas that fit what is emerging - stem from the most humane, generative and nurturing of human impulses. The vast majority of truly breakthrough innovators I have worked with are far more driven by purpose than profit; and are way more motivated by collective emancipation than a private exit.

Nick’s book on breakthrough innovation, leadership and creativity is out in Sep. You can pre-order now on  Amazon .

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