Are Your People Capable of Disruption?

In last week’s blog is your company capable of disruption?, we looked at the three elements that a company requires to be disruptive. One of the key elements was PEOPLE. Today we will outline the capabilities your people need to be disruptive.

Since Clayton Christensen coined the phrase “disruptive innovation” in his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma, scores of academics and management consultants have studied a range of industries and companies in order to identify and classify various forms of disruption. Christensen asserts that disruptions are those that create new markets and value networks, thereby upending existing ones. Volumes of research and evidence show how disruptive thinking improves the odds of success for products, companies, even countries. So why not people?

Following in Christensen’s footsteps, an entire cottage industry of experts have developed their own jargon for identifying and labeling disruptions. There are now more theories of disruption out there than we can count. Some focus on the most profitable high end of an existing market, while others examine how disruption works by encroaching on the low end.

I believe that disruption can also work on a personal level, not just for entrepreneurs who launch disruptive companies but also for people who work within and move between organizations. Zigzagging career paths may be common now, but the people who zigzag best don’t do it randomly.

Not everyone has to abandon the traditional path, of course. Certainly if you’re working toward an ambitious and potentially achievable goal, such as managing a division at your firm or winning a C-suite job in your industry, disruption is unnecessary. You’re pursuing what Christensen calls sustaining innovation: when a company gets better at what it’s already doing and provides more value to existing customers. But if as an individual you’ve reached a plateau or you suspect you won’t be happy at the top rung of the ladder you’re climbing, you should disrupt yourself for the same reasons that companies must.

First and foremost, you need to head off the competition. As you continue to improve along the dimensions of performance that the employment market has historically valued, you risk overshooting demands. What you do reliably, if not brilliantly well, can be done just as effectively by many peers—and perhaps more swiftly and affordably by up-and-comers.

Second, consider the greater rewards that disruption may bring. It’s true that disruptive innovation in business tends to start out as a low-cost alternative to existing products or services, and of course you don’t want to embrace a career strategy that reduces your own price point. But when you disrupt yourself, you vector to a new set of metrics. In some cases, you might initially take a pay cut in return for a steeper trajectory; after all, the endgame of disruption is higher demand for what you produce. In other cases, you might even boost your pay while still undercutting the competition in your new role, organization, or industry. Remember, too, that when it comes to personal disruption, compensation is not just financial. Psychological and social factors also matter.

Netflix did it with its DVD distribution by mail, eventually delivering a knockout blow to Blockbuster video rental stores, who didn’t see this new way of doing things coming. Netflix did again with streaming content. Behind these corporate successes, is a pattern of disruption that also applies to individuals – it’s called the ‘’S” curve.

Yes, disruption can feel a bit scary, but the payoff of career growth and personal achievement makes overcoming the fear factor well worth it. We all start at the low end of the learning curve. The key is to shift into hypergrowth and, when your learning crests, to do what great disruptors do: catch a new wave.

If you can surf the S-Curve way of learning and mastering you will have an accelerated competitive advantage in this era of disruption.

A disruptive low-end product can be a Pac-Man-like gobbler of market share that dislodges an incumbent (like Netflix did to Blockbuster). A personal disruption involves movement from the bottom of a learning curve to the top, and then jumping to the bottom of the next.

Learn, leap, and repeat.


Lady Gaga, for example, is a master of personal disruption. She spent the low-end years in the New York music scene, making connections, fine-tuning her style, and writing songs for other performers. She reached her tipping point in 2008, with the release of her debut album, The Fame, and skyrocketed to the top of the curve with her follow-ups: The Fame Monster, Born This Way and Artpop. She was at least as famous for her outlandish outfits, persona, religious statements and videography as she was for her music.

Then she took some disruptive, step-back moves and risked alienating her fan base. She collaborated with the elderly Tony Bennett on a jazz album, Cheek to Cheek, performed a Sound of Music tribute during the 2015 Academy Awards, and most recently channeled her country girl with the 2016 album Joanne. Cowboy hat and boots, driving truck—a drastic departure from earlier times. Her halftime performance at the 2017 Super Bowl had the largest audience of any musical event—worldwide—ever, only one of a plethora of world records she now holds. Lady Gaga disrupted herself from controversy to sweetheart, all without missing a beat.

Bob Dylan, an icon of American music and now a Nobel Laureate, is also a model multiple disruptor. He precociously pursued his musical dreams, moving first from the Iron Range mining town of his origins to Minneapolis and then on to New York. His voice is unique, but not traditionally polished. His talent lies in intuitive musical sense and a prodigious gift for powerfully poetic lyrics. From his initial successes in acoustic folk music he shifted to electrified rock, alienating his early fans who booed him as he performed in festivals and concerts on two continents.

Twenty years later, when his popularity was at low ebb—and perhaps his creativity as well—he reenergized his career with an innovative style again, jump starting the poetry for another go around. Over the years he disrupted from one musical genre to another, exploring blues, rock, country, religious, and Christmas music.

Did the press and fans applaud Lady Gaga’s changes? Clamor with approval when Bob Dylan amped up his performance? Nope. When we take a step back, no matter how carefully calculated, we may encounter disbelief, detractors, possibly disdain.

That’s the risk when you engage in a personal game of chutes and ladders!

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