Small Ways to Embrace Disruptive Innovation

Distruption Blog Post

Most companies today recognize the threats that “disruption” poses to their business. But few see the opportunities in disruptive innovation, much less set aside the time and investment required to pursue new thinking. Lack of vision or a complacent “if it ain’t broke…” culture can be to blame. And focusing company resources on disruptive innovations is often time-intensive and costly, not to mention that it takes the focus off of managing the profitability of the core company offering.

Change is hard. Finding time and investment to support change? Even harder. But there are small ways to leverage disruptive innovation to help an organization identify new threats and develop the innovation that will ultimately supplant the current core business. Here are five low cost/low effort ways to develop a disruptive habit:

Host a “Pitch Day” Company/Agency/Partner Contest — Right now, at this very moment, there is someone inside your company or stable of partners who has an idea about your business that could unlock your next innovation. But they don’t have a proper forum to tell company leaders about it. So, create one by launching a Pitch Day— a one-day shootout where the best ideas win. Creating a regular forum for hearing blue-sky ideas about your business is fun, and it energizes your partners and internal staff. It just might identify a blue-sky innovation that alters the business substantially.

Stage 24-hour Skunkworks — Maybe it’s in preparation for the Pitch Day contest or just a semi-regular occurrence to foster innovation, but don’t underestimate the power of a 24-hour skunkworks. Unlike the Pitch Day, these sessions operate best when they’re focused on a particular problem or topic. Provide participants with ample homework to understand the issue, do a modicum of empathy work and go off-site. Even if you don’t crack your next big innovation, you will, at a minimum, spark the innovative spirit in your culture and demonstrate the company is serious about new ideas.

Look Laterally — Open your field of view and look to adjacent industries for advances that could inspire an innovation for you. Samsung and other major corporations do this by using Triz, a problem-solving approach premised on the idea that somebody, somewhere has already solved your problem. The trick is identifying the solution to your company/category issue as it exists in a separate industry before leveraging that solution for your own needs. This is the kind of thinking that led Coca-Cola to scrutinize the medical device industry to borrow micro-dispensing tech for use in the Coke Freestyle soda fountains.

Develop an Early-indicator Disruption Alert Process — Every company fears a watershed moment when a new entrant disrupts the category and renders its very existence moot. But there are early indicators of burgeoning disruption threats. Where exactly to search for competitive threats depends on your industry, but common areas include patent filings, start-up watchers (e.g.,, investor news, and even independent inventor platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Work with your partners or internal crisis management teams to identify your company’s best early-indicator channels.

Establish Relationships With Local Educators and Entrepreneurs —  Follow the lead of innovative companies such as GE, which believes “openness leads to inventiveness and usefulness. We also believe that it’s impossible for any organization to have all the best ideas.” Companies invested in partnerships with local universities and/or start-up accelerators are more connected, aware and in tune with what’s next than those who stay in their own swim lane.

It’s a matter of time before you’re either the disruptor or the disrupted. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “Progress without change is impossible and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

Previously published in Ad Age.

John Doyle is Executive Director of Brand Experience at Minneapolis ad agency Colle+McVoy.