With Disruptors’ Eyes

Another Saturday night, another essay down the hatch. A politics meets philosophy manifesto that stretched my achingly pragmatic brain far beyond its comfort zone. But philosophical ignorance aside, it’s time to celebrate. Because that submission meant tools down for the year. Schools out. I have my weekends back. And I can confirm that the ‘nothing to do, nowhere to be’ feeling is just as grand as it was in my undergraduate years. (Though I can’t say the same for my manner of celebration.)

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Self Disrupt

In a mark of utter disappointment (or perhaps relief?) to my younger self, I celebrated with a Connosieur ice-cream, a bout of guilt-free vacuuming and a visit to the bookshelf. I gave Hillary Clinton another go for all of about 10 minutes but I wasn’t feeling it. Too much America, too many war stories (literally). So I switched to Jay Samit’s ‘Disrupt Yourself’. And I’m glad I did. There are so many lessons in there. And so begins another one, and the real reason for this post.

Self-evidently, Samit’s book is about disruption. Which, I now know, is like innovation, but better. Where innovation makes a product leaner, faster, stronger, disruption renders that product entirely redundant. Disruption occurs when a link in the value chain is transformed by the introduction of a new technology or product. Innovation makes existing players richer, disruption causes money to flow from existing players to new entrants.

Take, for example, the home entertainment industry. The DVD was an improvement on the VCR. Clearer picture, slimmer case, the ability to skip directly to the ‘And my wasted heart will love you’ feat. Dido scene in Love Actually. So Blockbuster et al evolved and replaced their stock with DVDs. People like me kept coming, with their money and their Gilmore Girls obsession. Innovation hit, but the business model continued to work and the market remained the same.

But then, there was Netflix. And the process of driving to the video store, handing over cash, driving home, driving back the next day (ok three days later) to return borrowed goods, seemed outrageous when compared to the couch-bound and cashless alternative. The whole video hire market faded away, and the stores went with it (RIP Blockbuster, the last frontier of UGG boots in public).  This was disruption at work. The winners were the new entrants, the ones who saw gaps in the business model (leaving the house, late fees) and set about disrupting it.

So what makes a disruptor? Are you one? Am I one? Can we be?

Well, yeah. Or so says Samit. For disruption is a state of mind. Much like optimists (my people), disruptors see the world as a series of opportunities. They don’t see problems, they see opportunity. They don’t see gaps, they see new markets. They don’t wait for others to create something, they build it themselves. And then usually they sell it for lots of money.

The Godfather of disruption is of course Sir Richard Branson. I imagine this story has been flogged at every gathering of business people from Brisbane to Buenos Aires, but I’ve never heard it before, so I’ll jot it here. In 1979, when the then 29-year-old music executive missed his flight to Puerto Rico from the British Virgin Islands, he looked around the airport and added up in his head how many other travellers were also stranded. He quickly chartered a plane and wrote on a blackboard ‘VIRGIN AIRWAYS $39’. Everyone got to where they wanted to go. But Sir Richard and his fiancé, Joan, got to fly for free. While most weary travellers would see a missed flight as an insurmountable problem, and seek comfort in a $12 G and T, those with a disruptor’s mindset will see it differently. And if you think differently, often enough, it might just pay. Indeed, I believe ‘Think Different’ was Apple’s motto in the 1990s.

For existing businesses, disruption is inevitable. The key is to be prepared, or get there first. Samit explains how to to reinvent your business from the inside out. A business is the sum of its value chain, and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Through constant introspection, you can find the weak links, and disrupt them, before someone else does.

Had Blockbuster been so self-aware, it may have noticed that consumers were shifting their gaze, and their money, from the street to the sofa. A little foresight would have enabled Blockbuster to sell out early, pivot to digital or invest in upcoming competitors.

Samit’s value chain disruption theory is not limited to business. True to the title, Samit claims that we can disrupt ourselves. Like a business, we have an internal value chain that could benefit from a little targeted self-disruption.

Our value chain consists of:

  • our research and development link – our skills, qualifications, life experience;
  • our design and production link – the way we approach problems and see the world;
  • our marketing and sales link – our acceptance or rejection of our perceived limitations; and
  • our distribution link – the way we choose to spend our time and energy.

More on self-disruption in another post. But there’s nothing to stop us starting now. Starting by seeing the world, and ourselves, through disruptors’ eyes. Starting by thinking differently.

Because, as Tolstoy said, ‘Everyone thinks of changing the world, but noone thinks of changing himself.’

Thought Leader(s): Jay Samit; Sir Richard Branson

Book(s): Samit, J (2015) ‘Disrupt Yourself’, Panmacmillan. 

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