How do you build a team of Disruptors?

In last week’s blog surfing the wave of personal disruption, we looked at the 7 elements of the learning curve that enable personal disruption. Today we will outline the capabilities you need as a leader to manage your entire team to be disruptors.

Captain James Cook was one of the greatest explorers and cartographers in history. He was the first European to visit what is now Sydney, Australia. He discovered the Hawaiian Islands and skirted Antarctica, sailing a total of well over two hundred thousand miles—essentially the distance from the earth to the moon. One-third of the globe was unmapped when he was born; when he died in 1779, he had explored most of it and drawn maps so accurate that they were still in use two hundred years later.

It’s unlikely Cook would have accomplished any of this had he not been willing to jump to new learning curves and been sponsored by people who recognized and invested in his talent.

Cook was born in 1728 to an impoverished laboring family in Yorkshire, England, and raised in a tiny hovel where only one of his five siblings lived to adulthood. The lord of the local manor, Thomas Scottowe, recognized James as gifted and paid for him to be educated at the local school. At seventeen, Cook moved to the coast of the North Sea, and thanks to his patron’s recommendation, he secured a job as an assistant shopkeeper.

When the sea called to him, Cook found a mentor in James Walker, a ship owner and coal merchant, who took Cook on as his apprentice. Under Walker’s tutelage, he worked his way up the ranks of the merchant navy, while studying mathematics, navigation, and astronomy.

In 1755, Walker offered Cook the position of ship’s master. Instead, he chose to join the Royal Navy where he began as a common sailor. (With a war in France looming, he believed this step back would lead to opportunities for promotion.) Here he found another patron in Hugh Palliser, an aspiring officer who was impressed with Cook’s talents and brought him along as he ascended within the naval establishment.

Cook’s mapmaking skills and his leadership during the Seven Years’ War eventually earned him the command of the HMS Endeavor, the Royal Navy research vessel he would captain on his legendary voyages.

Cook’s success depended on three men—Scottowe, Walker, and Palliser—who recognized his gifts and helped develop them. Without these talent-spotting sponsors, instead of becoming a revered adventurer, he might have wasted away in obscure poverty.

Captain James Cook wrote in his journal that he had “sailed farther than any other man before me.” Captain James T. Kirk, the pop culture icon of Star Trek, is modeled on Cook, and his motto “to boldly go where no man has gone before” could easily have belonged to Cook.

This is what people want on the job: to boldly go where they haven’t gone before. To venture into uncharted territory. To take themselves and their company where they’ve never been.

And yet, we humans also like a certain amount of predictability. If given the chance to see our future in a crystal ball, most of us would peek. We like to flip a switch and the light goes on. When we can forecast the future, we elevate our sense of security. When we believe we control our circumstances, we feel more confident. Even millennials, who often hummingbird from one opportunity to the next, believe that sticking with one company and climbing the corporate ladder is a safer bet for salary growth than switching jobs or entrepreneurship. But, control is an illusion. None of us knows what the future will bring.

It’s a conundrum. Disruption fosters innovation. It also challenges current, and often dearly held, practices without providing clear alternatives. It’s especially murky when it comes to finding the best way to manage your employees.

As mentioned in the past few blogs, the S-Curve helps us understand the psychology of disruption. At the outset you are starting something new. Start a new job. Start a new business. At the outset you are working really hard and nothing is really happening. So this is the time that you might feel discouraged. It is like when you start a fitness regime and you look at the scales and you are not losing any weight. Then you put in the days and the weeks and eventually the weight drops off. The same is when you start something new at work. If you persist you eventually move into the realm of competence. And with this comes confidence. At the height of the S-Curve you hit mastery. Things become easy yet often you become bored. So you hit the top of the S-Curve and you know have the disruptors dilemma. If you stay there your plateau may become a precipice.

So as a leader you need to manage your team as a collection of S-Curves. Every person is on a S-Curve. You build an ‘A’ team by having 15% at the bottom of the S-Curve. Brand new to the role where lots of stupid questions are being asked. You have 70% of your team in the sweet spot where they are competent and confident. This is where the disruption happens. And then 15% at the top of the S-Curve. You build a disruptive organization by helping these people jump to another S-Curve. If you have too many people at the top of the S-Curve, chances are that you are about to be disrupted. Complacency and boredom will cripple your performance. So when they jump, further disruption can occur. For the individual and the organization.

Back to Blog

Get Mark's thought-provoking exploration straight into your inbox