Disrupt Yourself: A Powerful Idea For Succeeding in Unexpected Ways
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Episode 41 Transcript:
Chris Curran: Growth Igniters Radio. Episode 41: Disrupt Yourself: A Powerful Idea For Succeeding In Unexpected Ways.
This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement Inc. − Enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of growth. On the web at https://businessadvance.com
And now, here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks, Chris. I’m Pam Harper, founding partner and CEO of Business Advancement, Inc., and I am joined, as always, by my business partner and husband, Scott Harper. Hi, Scott.
Scott Harper: Hi, Pam. It’s always a delight to join you for another episode of Growth Igniters Radio, and if this is your first time listening, our purpose is to spark new insights, inspiration, and immediately useful ideas for leaders to take themselves and their companies to their next level of success.
So Pam, our topic today is to “disrupt yourself?”
Pam Harper: Yes, and as you’ll remember in episode 40 − our holiday book pairings for accelerating success in 2016 − we discussed that to continue growth and success in the new year, it’s essential for leaders to embrace, and not just accept, the inevitability of uncertainty in the business environment. This was the context for our recommendations for books. One of the books we recommended was Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work.
Today, we’re going to dig deeper into that topic of personal disruption, and we are delighted to have Whitney Johnson, the author of Disrupt Yourself, join us today.
Just a bit about Whitney − she is the leading thinker on driving innovation through personal disruption. She co-founded Rose Park Advisors, a boutique investment firm, with Clayton Christensen, and was an Institutional Investor-Ranked Analyst for eight consecutive years, including at Merrill Lynch. She is a frequent contributor to The Harvard Business Review, and is also author of the book Dare, Dream, Do, which came out in 2012.
Whitney has been widely recognized for her contributions, including being named a Future Thinker finalist by Management Thinkers50 in 2013, and was one of Fortune’s 55 most influential women on Twitter in 2014. Whitney is also the co-founder of the Forty over 40 list, recognizing women who are reinventing, disrupting, and making an impact. You can see Whitney’s full bio by going to http://growthignitersradio.com, episode 41.
Whitney, welcome to Growth Igniters Radio.
Whitney Johnson: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.
Pam Harper: We are so excited to have the author of this book with us. Disrupt Yourself is such an interesting title, and you came to this with a very interesting journey of your own. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and what prompted you to write Disrupt Yourself?
Whitney Johnson: Yes, absolutely. In 2005 − about a decade ago − I was working on Wall Street, and covering stocks, where I would issue a buy or sell recommendation on stocks in Latin America. I was very much at the top of my game, and one day I announced to a friend that I was going to quit my job. She looked at me, and said with concern in her voice, and on her face, “are you sure you know what you’re doing?” but I’m confident she thought I had lost my mind…
Scott Harper: “…Are you nuts?”
Whitney Johnson: Exactly. She knew that getting to this place of power and respect had been really hard won. I had started out about 15 years earlier as a secretary working for a retail sales broker, and worked my way up from secretary to investment banker, to equity analyst, and had achieved a certain level of success.
What I didn’t realize at the time, but have since come to learn, is that when I walked on to Wall Street through a secretarial side door, and then again when I walked off of Wall Street to become an entrepreneur, I was a disruptor. About that time, I had discovered disruption, because I had come across Clayton Christensen and his work, and it helped me understand what I was seeing with wireless completely upending the wireline telephony, and as I read his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, and this was around 2004 − it occurred to me that in fact, these frameworks apply to individuals, not just to companies and countries.
In applying those to individuals, it also meant that they applied to me, and that if there were some things that I wanted to get done in my career, if I was going to get those things done; I was going to need to disrupt myself, and leave my current post. That’s how I came to this. Somewhat circuitous, but in many ways very direct.
Scott Harper: How do you define personal disruption? What is it, and how does it get you to that discontinuous next level of success in unexpected ways?
Whitney Johnson: Let me start with a basic definition of disruption. Disruptive innovation is a low end, or new market innovation − think Amazon in the 90s − that starts out very much at the low end of the markets. Its position is very weak. It’s inferior initially, and the incumbents, like a Barnes & Noble, or a Borders, could have squashed them, really, like a cockroach, but they didn’t, because they don’t bother, and eventually, by the time it did make sense to crush them, it was too late.
When it comes to personal disruption, what it means is you apply that principle to yourself as an individual, so you start at the low end of the ladder, you climb to the top of the ladder, and then you jump off to a new ladder.
Scott Harper: For you then it was starting as a secretary on Wall Street, and then somehow or other leveraging your way up into being a trader, and up from there.
Whitney Johnson: Correct, and then once I was at the top of my game, I jumped off that ladder, and then onto a new ladder to become an entrepreneur. That’s that moment where you are either starting at the low end, or you’re at the top, and you’re jumping off to do something different. That’s the moment in which you’re disrupting yourself.
Scott Harper: Jumping off sounds a little intimidating-
Pam Harper: And it’s a challenge all by itself. What would you say are some of the biggest challenges that companies, or certainly individuals face when they’re trying to disrupt?
Whitney Johnson: You already started to allude to it. I think there are two challenges. One of them is you’re scared, because as you just noted, there’s somewhat of a free-fall involved when you’re jumping off one ladder, or jumping off of one wave to surf a new wave.
The other thing that keeps people from doing this is they’re really comfortable. It feels pretty good to be at the top of the ladder, and why on earth would I jump off the ladder when I’ve got all the prestige and stature and monetary that I want, at this point − why would I try something new?
Scott Harper: So why?
Pam Harper: Why would you?… Scott and I think alike.
Whitney Johnson: Maybe you’re married, or something…
I would say that the reason that you do, is that human progress or forward progress is very much an imperative, and that it actually feels good to disrupt yourself, believe it or not. Whenever we try something new, we’re thinking of ourselves as not who we are, but who we could become. We’re moving from stuck to unstuck, and whenever you try something new, your brain gets this squirt of dopamine, which is this neurotransmitter that actually makes you feel good. When you disrupt yourself, even though it feels like you’re going to feel more comfortable staying where you are, in fact you’re going to be happier if you’re willing to jump to something new, and so that’s why you end up doing it.
Scott Harper: In fact, if you are disrupting yourself, you’re preempting other people from disrupting you, which is even more uncomfortable.
Pam Harper: You’re taking more control of your career. You’re taking more control of your life, in truth. The idea then, is that the more that we can think about the fact that we’re going to take control of ourselves, by disrupting ourselves, there could be some success in unexpected ways. But first it takes understanding what’s involved, and we’re going to talk about learning curves when we come back.
We’re going to take a quick break now, and speak more with Whitney Johnson, author of Disrupt Yourself, in just a moment. Stay with us.
Chris Curran: You are listening to Growth Igniters Radio, with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Brought to you by Business Advancement Inc. On the web at https://businessadvance.com
We enable successful companies to accelerate to their next level of innovation and growth. And if you like what you’re hearing, spread the good word. Go to http://growthignitersradio.com, select episode 41, and use the share links for Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter at the top right of the page to tell your social media communities all about us. Use hash tag #growthigniters. This will help extend our reach to all of the people who can benefit from this series.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper − that’s me − and Scott Harper. Scott and I are talking today with Whitney Johnson, author of Disrupt Yourself, about harnessing the power and unpredictability of disruptive innovation to succeed in unexpected ways. Whitney, can you tell us how can people reach you? How can they learn more about the book?
Whitney Johnson: The best place to start is to go to my website, http://whitneyjohnson.com, or you can follow me on Twitter (@johnsonwhitney). You can learn more about the book at http://disruptyourselfbook.com, or go to Amazon, or any other online, or actually offline retailer, and purchase the book.
Pam Harper: In addition to all of that, we will also have links on episode 41 at http://growthignitersradio.com, so it works out really well.
In our first segment of this episode, we were talking with Whitney about the importance of being willing to take that leap of faith, in a sense, and to disrupt yourself, because it feels good, and it’s good for you.
Scott Harper: Like chicken soup.
Pam Harper: Better than that, but there is of course much more to it, and one of the things that you talk quit a bit about is the “S-curve.” Can you tell us what the S-curve is, and how can companies and individuals use it to understand what you’re talking about as personal disruption?
Whitney Johnson: The S-curve was developed by E. M. Rogers, in 1962, and the initial purpose of it was to help understand how ideas were spread throughout a system − throughout a population, et cetera. The way it works is that at the bottom of the S-curve, initially progress is really, really slow, and then once you reach this tipping point, which is typically 10-15% of the population, then you enter into hyper-growth, and that’s the sleek, steep back of the curve. Then, at the top of the curve, which is your saturation, or 90%, growth begins to taper off.
The reason that the S-curve is so helpful to us in thinking about personal disruption, is because if you think about it − at the low end it, looks like nothing is happening, then you’ve got this period at the back of the curve, where it seems like you don’t need to do anything, and then growth is exploding, it’s exponential, and then at the top of the curve it slows down.
The S-curve helps us deal with the time delays of disruption, and it helps us understand the psychology of disruption. It helps you understand that when you’re trying something new, even though intellectually you know that it’s going to feel good eventually, it looks like you’re getting absolutely nothing done, because you’re building up momentum still. That helps you avoid discouragement.
Than, as you put in the time, as you put in the practice, you’re going to accelerate into competence, which if you’re trying a new job, or trying a new role, is typically around six months. Then you’re going to feel confident, that’s the sweet spot of the S-curve. That’s when all of your synapses are firing. You’re learning and you feel productive.
At the top of the curve, everything’s easy, but because it’s so easy, you’re not having as many dopamine squirts, and boredom can kick in. If at this point, if you don’t jump to a new curve, that plateau that you think is so comfortable, can actually become a precipice. If you can learn to surf these waves, of learning and mastering, and figuring out how to do that quickly, then you’re going to have more fun, or have a happier life, but also be more successful, and have a competitive advantage in an era where we’ve got accelerating disruption.
Pam Harper: The thing that you said that is very important. All of it is, but, that initial jump, where you can’t see things happening…
Scott Harper: …The lag phase.
Pam Harper: …The lag phase. That’s an area where I think there’s a lot of challenge, because people don’t know if they’re really making progress. How can they know?
Whitney Johnson: I would say a couple things. The first is to know that you’re not going to know. That’s helpful. Then, I’ve identified seven variables that allow you to accelerate up the curve, and I think there are a couple of things that you can look for that will help you think, “Am I on the right curve for me? There may be a problem that needs to be solved, but am I the right person to solve it?”
The first is to take the right kinds of risks. As you’re jumping to a new curve, you may think, “I want to pursue this opportunity, because I know there’s a market there. I know there’s customers available to me, I know there’s a job available to me” et cetera, but the fact is, is that you’re much better off going after market risk where you don’t know if there are customers, but if there is a market, the market will be yours for the taking. You’re taking on market risk versus competitive risk. In fact, market risk is less risky, and the odds of success, based in the research at Innovator’s Dilemma, is that you’re six times more likely to be successful, and that you’re going to have a twenty times higher revenue opportunity.
That’s the first thing, is to look for the market risk − and the second thing, I would say, is if you are on a curve that is not allowing you to play to your distinctive strengths, it’s probably not the right curve. You want to be iterating to figure out what that is. Your distinctive strengths are what you do well that other people in your sphere do not.
The third thing, I would say, to figure out quickly if it’s the wrong or the right curve, is to impose really clear constraints, that way you can get lots of feedback, and get it really quickly, because that feedback’s giving you information, and you’ll be able to know at a much lower cost in terms of time and resources if it’s the wrong or the right curve.
Scott Harper: This is what you call the power of working within limits? Is that right?
Whitney Johnson: Correct.
Scott Harper: How does working within constraints benefit? Can you…
Pam Harper: It seems like that would be something that would be…
Scott Harper: Counter-intuitive.
Pam Harper: Right.
Whitney Johnson: Yeah. It is counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Because we have in our lexicon, “If only I had,” right? If only I had more time, more space, than I could get XYZ magical thing done. If you think about, whenever you’re trying something new, you need feedback. It’s like a child learning to walk. They’re getting lots of feedback − How is it working?
It’s the same for us. The best way to get that feedback is to have constraint, so that you have something to bump up against. Think about a skateboarder. Skateboarders are some of the quickest learners in the world, because they receive incredibly fast and useful feedback. It’s the same with us, and I’ll give you a more specific example, which is, there was a study done by Entrepreneur Magazine in 2007. They compiled 500 fastest growing companies in the United States. What was interesting about that study, is how those companies funded themselves.
61% were profitable within one year, but only 28% had access to debt, only 18% had access to equity, and only 4% had access to venture capital. What we know from that data is that at least 50%, and as much as 72% of these companies had no access to outside capital. The question becomes were they successful in spite of, or because of their constraints?
For me, as I think about constraints, they’re inevitable, first of all, so it’s probably better if we figure out how to live with them. But in fact, for an innovator, a constraint − it’s not a check on absolute freedom, it’s actually a tool of creation.
Pam Harper: I think the other thing that we’ve seen ourselves, when we are working with a company, and they are pushed up against the limit, is that they do inevitably find a way to come up with something that they hadn’t thought of before. Putting it in the light that you’re talking about really does explain why.
Whitney Johnson: Yeah. It’s super counter-intuitive-
Pam Harper: It really is. Let’s talk more about counter-intuitive. You talk about a number of counter-intuitive things in your book. One of the things that I think is also important is the inevitability of missteps when you’re walking into the unknown, and yet so many top leaders are conditioned, “Failure is not an option.” How can we use these elements of disruption to reconcile that paradox and recover faster?
Whitney Johnson: I would say there are a couple of things we can do. Number one, is building on this idea of constraints that we just discussed. If you yourself are imposing the constraints, then you’re building an experiment. You remove this idea of failure from being something about you. It’s just this experiment we’re trying − it’s this object away and apart from me. I think that as you choose to impose the constraints, again this idea disrupt yourself before you’re disrupted, I think that can make a difference.
Pam Harper: You depersonalize it.
Whitney Johnson: You depersonalize it. But the bigger, real question that you’re asking is, we celebrate failure, but the truth is that we all feel a little ashamed by it, and the reason that we feel ashamed by it is that in our society, certainly in the western society, from the time that we are very young, our identity is tied to our achievements. They are inextricably linked. You achieve − plus 1 for identity. You don’t achieve − minus 1 for identity. Whenever we fail, and we feel it’s at all personal, then our fundamental sense of self has been subtracted.
I think one of the best things that we can do is be aware that it’s happening, and understand that if we make the failure a referendum on us, we can’t learn the important things we need to learn about this thing not working. I think the take home there is really to be aware that we tie our success and failure to our net worth, and then practice not doing it, and set up situations and contexts where the experiment is separate from the individual.
Pam Harper: “It failed,” instead of “I failed.”
Whitney Johnson: Correct.
Scott Harper: And you have to be sincere about that, rather than like some companies that say, “We celebrate failure,” but no they don’t.
Whitney Johnson: No they don’t…
Scott Harper: You have to really embrace it, and say, “It failed, but that’s an experiment” and being a researcher, I know all about failed experiments. And yet if you keep going, you learn so much, and you can really do more.
Whitney Johnson: Exactly. I think you as a scientist are especially equipped to put in practice this notion. It’s experimentation, over and over.
Scott Harper: Absolutely.
Pam Harper: The more that we’re embracing our constraints, and we’re using failure as a way to learn, and to master that learning curve − depersonalizing it − and making it just information, the more that we’re going to be able to go up the learning curve, and continue to disrupt ourselves, and grow.
We’re going to take another quick break, and when we come back we’ll talk more with Whitney Johnson, author of Disrupt Yourself, about some immediately useful ideas for disrupting yourself and getting to that next level of success. Stay with us.
Scott Harper: So Pam, since we’re discussing dealing with uncertainty and increasing success, how does your own book, Preventing Strategic Gridlock, fit into this theme?
Pam Harper: Actually, it’s quite relevant, whether you’re talking about business or personal success. “Strategic gridlock” is the name I gave to the mysterious stalls that often happen when successful organizations are under intense pressure to transform and grow. Leaders have told me that Preventing Strategic Gridlock helped them to think more strategically about how to head off the stalls, unlock more of the organization’s potential, and make big things happen, regardless of the uncertainty they faced.
Scott Harper: Buy your own copy of Preventing Strategic Gridlock today on http://www.amazon.com, and be sure to take advantage of our holiday offer for a 15 minute “pick our brains” phone call, where we’ll focus on a leadership issue that’s most important to you.
Go to http://growthignitersradio.com, select episode 41, and scroll down to “resources” for more information.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio, with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Over the last two segments, Scott and I have been speaking with Whitney Johnson, author of Disrupt Yourself, about daring to follow your own disruptive path to succeed on unexpected ways. Whitney − how can people buy your book?
Whitney Johnson: First of all, you can go to http://www.amazon.com, or you can go to Barnes & Noble. Anywhere online − pretty much anywhere, actually. You can go to http://audible.com, or to your local bookstore. Thank you for asking.
Pam Harper: We really recommend it. This book is so powerful.
Let’s go back to our discussion. This is the point where we talk about things that as soon as our listeners are done with this episode, that they could go out and do.
Whitney Johnson: The second variable that will really allow you to move up the curve quickly, is to play to your distinctive strengths − which is again the idea of doing what you do well that others in your sphere do not. Distinctive strengths are usually pretty easy to figure out, because they make you a fish out of water.
The more baseline query that people have is, “What are my strengths in the first place?” One immediate question I would ask for a tip is to think about the last compliment that you actually dismissed. Someone gave it to you, and you just shrugged it off. The reason I want you to consider that is that our strengths tend to be something that we do reflexively well, so well that we just overlook them.
Malcolm Forbes said people tend to undervalue what they are, and overvalue what they aren’t. If you’re getting this complement so many times, you’re not being coy, for you it’s just as natural as breathing, and you just think, “Why are they complementing me on this?” In fact, that strength is very likely your superpower, and in fact your superpowers may not be on your website, they may not be on your resume, because you overlooked them. That would be the first thing.
Pam Harper: Just as an example, for yourself, if you went from secretary to…
Scott Harper: High ranking trader….
Pam Harper: That’s right. What was it that you identified as your strength that enabled you to make that leap?
Whitney Johnson: Great question. In any discipline, there’s almost always what I call “pay-to-play” skills − your price of entry. As an equity analyst covering stocks, my pay-to-play skills were that I needed to build a financial model, I needed to be able to determine the valuation of a stock. Those were pay-to-play things that I had to do, and I did them well, so they got me the price of entry; but my distinctive strengths were that I could connect the dots, and by connecting dots, by putting people together, and ideas together, that made me a good stock picker, and it also allowed me to connect investors, with CEOs of companies, et cetera.
The reason that it’s important to be aware of, is I remember a number of times people saying to me, “You’re really good at connecting, or thinking across silos” and I remember thinking, “I’m not good at that,” or “I don’t want you to tell me I’m good at that; I want you to tell me I’m good at building a financial model,” because I worked really hard to learn to build a financial model. I hadn’t worked at all to be able to look across silos. The thing that made me, that moved me to the top of the heap an equity analyst was not that I had the best model or the best earnings estimate, it was the fact that I had those things as a foundation, but then I played to my distinctive strength, which was the ability to look across silos and make connections.
Pam Harper: The more that you were willing to think expansively about what you were good at, the more you were able to recognize this.
Whitney Johnson: Right; and I would say to anyone who’s listening, the more you are willing to own those things that you do really well, and you actually dismiss and undervalue, the more you’re willing to own those, the more successful you’re going to be.
Scott Harper: Makes sense. What’s a second piece of practical, actionable advice that we can give people?
Whitney Johnson: I would say to think about your biggest accomplishment to date − and this would go to the idea of embracing constraints − because almost always one of your major accomplishments in life has been surmounting a huge, probably unexpected, even undeserved obstacle. Whether it was your upbringing, health challenges, financial circumstances, relationship woes, whatever − and once you got over that “if only I had” you allowed your obstacles to become a tool of creation. And so what I would say to you is to look at that biggest accomplishment to date, analyze it, and see how you turned that constraint into a tool of something that’s quite remarkable, because now you consider it one of your biggest accomplishments.
If you can tap into that, then you’re going to be able to move up your learning curve more quickly, and the a more of a competitive advantage you’ll have in the marketplace.
Pam Harper: What would be the third tip that you would give?
Whitney Johnson: I would say to think about the last time you were scared and lonely, and then give yourself a high five. Because whenever you’re disrupting, you’re basically playing where no one else is playing. And so when you’re scared to try something new, it probably means that it matters to you, and it also could very well mean that you’re on the right path to disruption, because there’s no one else there yet. I think that if you can look at those times when you do feel scared, or look at those times when you do feel lonely, it could be a really important clue that you’re on the path to doing something remarkable and meaningful. That would be my third suggestion
Scott Harper: And really being able to visualize, perhaps, a time where you have overcome. “I did overcome; I can overcome this.” It creates a greater sense of power, and counteracts that sense of discouragement, and maybe the feeling of “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Pam Harper: Whitney, this has been so interesting, so helpful. Any final thoughts as far as disrupting yourself, and finding success in unexpected ways?
Whitney Johnson: When you’re willing to play where no one else is playing, unexpected things happen, and you’ll see money, stature, and happiness generally follow. The final thing I would say is, going back to our very initial question, “if this is so scary, why do you do it?” You’ve got to figure out what your dreams are; you’ve got to allow your people that work for you to bring their dreams to work, because when we’re dreaming, we’re hungering for a better life. When we’re dreaming, we become problem solvers. We let nothing stand in our way, and dreaming to me is really the engine of disruption.
I think it’s important, as we’re thinking with our logical left brain of disruption and execution, that we allow ourselves and the people who work for us to also have their dreams, because when they do dream, they’re going to not only be willing to jump off the curve, and move from that comfortable place, but want to, and get over the fear of doing it. Dreaming really is the engine of disruption.
Pam Harper: Whitney, thank you so much for being our guest today.
Whitney Johnson: Thank you.
Scott Harper: Thanks Whitney, and thanks to you out there for listening to Growth Igniters Radio, with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. To check out resources related to today’s conversation, share on social media, find out about upcoming episodes, or open a conversation with us, go to http://growthignitersradio.com and select episode 41.
Pam Harper: Until next time, this is Pam Harper…
Scott Harper: And Scott Harper…
Pam Harper: Wishing you continued success, and leaving you with this question to discuss with your team:
Scott Harper: What are my dreams? What am I going to personally, and what can we as a company do to master each level of that S-curve to succeed in unexpected ways?