What is Personal Disruption? Answers from Innovation Speaker Whitney Johnson
Founder and Managing Director of the Springboard Fund, business and innovation speaker Whitney Johnson is a top investor and leading thinker on driving innovation through personal disruption. As co-founder at startup investment advisor Rose Park Advisors, she co-led an in-the-trenches venture that applied frameworks of disruptive innovation to investing. She provides strategic and tactical advice to CEOs of early stage start-ups—advising how to influence opinion, build a movement and connect to the right people.
“The fundamental unit of disruption is actually the individual. Companies don’t disrupt – people do.”
SPEAKING.COM: How do you define personal disruption?
JOHNSON: Personal disruption is the act of applying the framework of disruptive innovation to an individual. In the case of products and services, a disruptive innovation is a silly, little thing that ends up taking over the world like Toyota did to General Motors, like the telephone did to the telegraph, or like the car did to the horse and buggy. With personal disruption, you start at the bottom of the ladder, you climb to the top of that same ladder and then you jump to the bottom of a new ladder.
SPEAKING.COM: What is the relationship between personal disruption and disruption on a macro level?
JOHNSON: We typically think of disruptive innovation as a means of moving the economy forward, an innovation that originates with a product or a service, a company, or even a country. Yet the fundamental unit of disruption is actually the individual. Companies don’t disrupt – people do. So if you want to move innovation forward inside your organization, remember that disruption happens at the individual level first, not the organizational level.
SPEAKING.COM: What is the “S curve” in the context of disruption and what can it help us understand?
JOHNSON: Popularized by EM Rogers in his book, Diffusion of Innovation, the S curve helps gauge how quickly an innovation will be adopted. It also illustrates just how unpredictable disruption is. So if you think about the bottom curve of an “S”, growth is going to be very slow at first. Once you reach 10 to 15% market penetration, you’re going to accelerate into hyper growth – the sleek steep back of the curve. At the top of the curve, typically 90% market penetration or saturation growth tapers off.
What I’ve done with the S curve is I’ve re-imagined it to help us understand the psychology of disruption. So anytime you start something new whether it’s a role or project, it’s an opportunity to disrupt. The S curve tells you that initially when you’re starting out, growth is going to be very slow, an expectation that helps you avoid discouragement. If you’re hiring people, it helps you avoid frustration recognizing that there is a low end to the curve and it’s going to take them a while to get up to speed.
As you put in the days, weeks, months, and sometimes years of practice, you’re going to accelerate into competence – that sleek back of the S. This is the exciting part of the curve where all of your neurons are firing and you’re building confidence.
At the top of the curve, you’re approaching mastery. Things are going to become very easy for you, but because you’re no longer enjoying those feel good effects that come from learning, you can actually get bored. If you don’t jump to a new S curve or a new ladder, your plateau can become a precipice.
The key with personal disruption is to learn to surf those S curve waves of learning and mastering. The more quickly and adeptly you can do that, the more successful you will be as a disruptor.
“To be successful as a disruptor, it’s important for us to be able to lean on our strengths, and in particular, our distinctive strengths – things we do well that other people do not.”
SPEAKING.COM: You have said “Our own unique skills are often the ones we value least.” Could you elaborate on that?
JOHNSON: People usually overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are, a tendency that’s rooted in evolution. In prehistoric times if you got too comfortable, your chances of getting killed and eaten increased, so you couldn’t focus too much on what you did well; rather, you had to focus on what other people were doing well so that you were able to survive.
In the modern world the things you do best are things that you do reflexively well, without thinking. I’ll give you a quick example: I can’t remember a time where I didn’t know how to play the piano. I learned how to play it when I was really young, so throughout my life I’ve thought, “Well, playing the piano is no big deal. Who cares?” On the other hand, someone who has always wanted to play the piano but never learned, actually really values that.
Sometimes, then, a person’s superpowers aren’t actually on their resume, because they overlook or ignore abilities that come so easily to them.
To be successful as a disruptor, it’s important for us to be able to lean on our strengths, and in particular, our distinctive strengths – things we do well that other people do not. That means we need to figure out what we do reflexively well, own it, value it, and use it every single day on the job.
SPEAKING.COM: What advice would you give people who have trouble finding work that correlates with their strengths?
JOHNSON: Finding work that correlates with your strengths is actually the easy part. Often you hire a person, and it turns out they’re in the wrong seat not because they’re not capable or high performing, but because they lead with what they do well rather than what they do best. On their resume they put the things they worked really hard to learn how to do, but not the things that have come easily for them.
Once people are truly attuned to what they do best, finding work that correlates to their strengths actually isn’t that difficult to do, because people come to you. One of the smartest things you can do is be willing to listen to the compliments that you get every day, especially the compliments you’ve “heard a million times.” If you go out and find a job that allows you to use that skill that people repeatedly compliment you on, you will have no trouble getting work that correlates to your strength. Sometimes we struggle to find work, because we simply aren’t willing to look for a job or projects that will leverage what we do best.
SPEAKING.COM: What are a few examples of turning constraints into something useful?
JOHNSON: There is a wonderful story about how Steven Spielberg took a constraint and turned it into a tool of creation when he was directing and producing one of his first films, Jaws. Some of the movie’s most iconic scenes in that film came about because the mechanical shark that Steven Spielberg wanted to use, did not actually work. Over budget and behind schedule, he decided to shoot the scenes from the shark’s point of view, add on John William’s now classic score, and let the audience’s imagination do the rest.
SPEAKING.COM: What guidelines would you offer people when it comes to assessing risks in their professional lives and deciding which risks to take?
JOHNSON: I typically focus on competitive risks and market risks. A competitive risk in your work life might be assessing if it’s worth investing the energy and time in applying for a job that you saw posted. You know that an organization has a need they’re trying to fill because you’ve read the post and you just need to figure out if you can compete against and beat out the other 10, or 25, or 50 people who are applying for that job.
When it comes to market risks, though, there are no “job posts” spelling out a need. Rather, you identify a problem you think you can solve and if you can actually persuade people and “the powers that be” to create a position or market for you, then you get the job.
People are far more reluctant to take market risks, even though the Theory of Disruption shows that those who pursue market risks over competitive risks are six times more likely to succeed.
With competitive risks, our brains actually mislead us to downplay the risks, because we view these situations as more certain and simple. There is a concrete demand and all we need to do is beat the opposition. In market risk, there’s no clear-cut opposition – just uncharted waters. If you can look at situations and say to your brain, “I know I feel less comfortable but that’s actually less risky,” then your odds of success are actually going to be higher.
“Disrupting yourself on a grand scale begins with disrupting yourself on a micro scale – finding ways to give yourself just a little bit more time to think a bit differently.”
SPEAKING.COM: How can people who may feel overworked and spread thin by their current responsibilities fit personal disruption into their lives?
JOHNSON: Disrupting yourself on a grand scale begins with disrupting yourself on a micro scale – finding ways to give yourself just a little bit more time to think a bit differently. For example, I find that if you’re willing to get up just 15 minutes earlier – before your anxiety gets up – then you can carve out some time to think, create, or explore something new and different.
My second suggestion comes from an experiment my family did a few weeks ago in which we decided to give up watching television in the evening. Typically our family watches an hour or an hour and a half, which eats up a lot of time. If you are willing to give up some of the activities you typically do to relax – like watching television, you can replace them with something that’s equally relaxing, but at the same time offers you a creative outlet – such as going for a walk so you can give yourself time to think.
“Look for opportunities to play where other people aren’t playing, where other people don’t want to play. You will be surprised how many opportunities come to you when you’re willing to play in those unusual places.”
SPEAKING.COM: You majored in music, which on the surface doesn’t seem to have much to do with finance and investing. In your personal journey how did you disrupt yourself to build a career on Wall Street?
JOHNSON: I moved to New York because my husband was going to graduate school, which left me responsible for putting food on the table. I actually did not want to have a career in music, which is ironic considering where we were, but honestly, I felt like I was finished with the music part of my life.
I decided that I wanted to work on Wall Street, but there was no way I was going to be able to walk in the front door. I had a music degree, I had not gone to Harvard, I was a female, and this was the late ’80s, early ’90s. So I had to walk in the side door by becoming a secretary.
Oftentimes, the motivation to move in a disruptive way occurs when you see something that you want and there’s no way that you can actually walk in the front door to get it. People that wanted to work on Wall Street didn’t think, “I’ll start as a secretary.” They wanted to start as an investment banker. As you’re thinking about your own career or business, be willing to play in that place that other people don’t want to be. Be willing to be a secretary.
I eventually came to work with Clayton Christensen and founded an investment fund with him, not because I had a degree from Harvard Business School, but because I collaborated with him on a number of volunteer projects that no one else was lining up for. In the course of doing that work with him, he saw that I was competent and capable. When he needed people to help him launch an investment fund, he knew me and my experience with investing, so he asked me if I would join him as a founding partner of the Disruptive Innovation Fund.
At a high level, if you’re looking to take this framework and have it play out in your career, look for opportunities to play where other people aren’t playing, where other people don’t want to play. You will be surprised how many opportunities come to you when you’re willing to play in those unusual places.
To bring business and innovation speaker Whitney Johnson to your organization, please contact Michael Frick at: Mike@Speaking.com
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