Disruptive technologies such as AI, machine learning, AR/VR, 5G, quantum computing, autonomous vehicles, et al., are further disrupting legacy companies struggling to keep up with evolving markets. Readers of my articles know I call this digital Darwinism, where technology and society incessantly evolve, introducing new and evolving capabilities and the resulting impact on benchmarks, behaviours and norms. To survive, let alone thrive in an era of digital Darwinism, companies need to adapt…or die. Right now, there are new breeds of investors, startups, competitors and operating models with the sole purpose of exploiting vulnerabilities. In themselves, this is a new form of a competitor, and of digital Darwinism in action.
There are a number of common reasons why it’s so difficult for incumbents to adapt, let alone innovate. Most models and hierarchies aren’t designed for agility, even when companies think they are agile. Most corporate cultures don’t incentivize or cultivate new expertise, risk-taking and experimentation across the organization. Most leaders don’t have the experience or vision to innovate, operate like a startup, invent new categories, or compete in uncharted segments. This is not their fault. It’s just a real-world dynamic in which most executives are learning talent, knowledge and capabilities and deficient. Many (most?) are hired to grow and protect their organizations, not innovate or change. As such, adapting to the times, tastes and trends is a slow process - so slow in fact that many organizations will not survive. They just don’t know it yet because they’re still drafting the momentum of past success. But those models only buy time until market share, revenue and margins start to diminish as new markets and competitors emerge. By then, for many, it’s too late.
The truth is that a sense of urgency exists for anyone responsible for ensuring short- and long-term performance and growth for any organization. Business as usual, however, isn’t the answer. The existing management model isn’t going to cut it. Innovation doesn’t develop or spread where there is natural resistance or obstruction to new ideas, conventions and practices. Leadership itself has to change. Existing standards for what constitutes success and failure have to change. Mindsets and ideals have to change.
In my work and research with startups, innovative organizations and market disruption, I’ve observed trends and best practices that help us explore ways forward. I’ve distilled these into what I refer to as the “5 Laws of Resilient Innovation.” I hope that this list inspires you and sparks creativity to either lead or empower leaders to innovate forward.
1: Accept digital Darwinism as a threat - and an opportunity.
These are disruptive times, and yet there isn’t any exact flashpoint when disruption happens. For instance, do you remember the exact month or year when Uber officially disrupted the taxi industry or when Airbnb disrupted travel? No, of course not, because there wasn’t an exact moment. Uber and Airbnb are both over 10 years old and they represent just two of the companies changing the game across every industry. And yet, executives still struggle to appreciate that momentum, entitlement and “iteration” aren’t viable business strategies in and of themselves.
There are four stages of innovation that we all need to embrace to remain incessantly competitive. 1) early adoption by new markets, 2) growth across early market majority to market majority, 3) maturity and 4) decline. Between the stages of “maturity” and “decline” is a period of discontinuity and an opportunity for companies to “jump the curve” as they say in Silicon Valley. It’s also an opportunity for outside disruption. It’s a choice.
Disruption shouldn’t be a surprise though because it doesn’t discriminate. Without intent and directed actions, everyone is affected. You have to inspire change and promise in others. Otherwise, emerging threats target specifically “why” and “how” businesses compete today because they are no longer in alignment with evolved standards for exceptional products, services and experiences. #AdaptOrDie
2: Embrace an open mindset to receive new opportunities for innovation and transformation.
Innovation is something all organizations need to survive and thrive, and it starts by understanding how people are different so that we can become the people we’re trying to innovate for.
From an optimist’s perspective, innovation is at the heart of disruption in a good way. You don’t have to be on the receiving end of disruption at all. It’s a gift you can also give to others as well. But not doing anything different isn’t going to help.
Our own cognitive biases make threats difficult to appreciate or accept. The only way forward is to challenge your own conventions and beliefs if you want to see what you couldn’t see before to move in directions that you would have otherwise missed.
You have to get unstuck. Business models, processes, and also attitudes make all the difference.
3: Innovation starts with a shift in perspective
Technology by itself isn’t the answer.
Real-world disruption starts from the outside in. People, behaviours and expectations change, and incumbent businesses and executive mindsets are just not keeping up. In fact, they’re protecting legacy models and systems because it is what they know and it’s made them successful to date. However, technology continues to push people in new directions every day. You just have to see it.
With each new experience, behaviours, expectations and preferences shift. And they don’t go backwards in how they live or work as a result. The disconnect happens when many companies ignore the human side of innovation. By not employing a human-centred design approach into their efforts, transformation and innovation work is limited and out of alignment with the essence of digital Darwinism.
Unfortunately, too many organizations are product, technology or operations-centric in their approach. This leads to confusing the promise of innovation, creating new value and influencing new behaviours, with iterative and incremental changes to do the same things better and at greater scale. The former is focused on developing new markets, whereas the latter is aimed at improving “business as usual.” You need both.
The same tech that’s contributing to disruption can be used to understand what people value or will value. Empathy and human-centred design are incredible sources of true innovation.
4: Accept accidental narcissists (Generation-Connected aka Gen-C) as your future customers today. Design for them.
The mistake many executives make is that they aren’t the evolving customers they need to reach. They are oftentimes more familiar with the idea of the customer of the past. Yet the customer continues to evolve as a result of their relationship with technology, new experiences, and empowerment from all they touch.
For example, the on-demand economy is changing value propositions and service models by making everything more convenient, centralized, personalized, immediate and efficient. I call today’s consumers “accidental narcissists” because they can get what they want, when and how they want, on demand. And everything they use online reinforces that they are the most important person in the world in that moment. All of this is changing how customers navigate life, and why and what they covet and what they consider obsolete or irrelevant.
This all adds up to what customers want to experience and why. As a result, new models are required to compete. In a sense, every company, regardless of industry, competes with Uber. How you work, how you experiment, defines your path toward either “iteration,” “innovation” or (ideally) both, which makes you either the disrupted or the disruptor.
5: Give innovation a purpose and organize around that purpose.
Innovation without purpose is a movement without a cause. Without intent, resolve or determination, innovation becomes aimless, lifeless and even listless. Yet, faced with a sense of urgency and abundant opportunities to connect with developing markets, innovation is often still pursued for its own sake. All too often, this leads to incredible disconnects between mediocrity and possibility, limited scope and exponentiality, and between buying time and striving for progress and relevance.
In my research, I’ve found the most advanced companies people at the heart of innovation via human-centred design. By taking a truly customer-first, empathetic and purposeful approach to understanding and predicting preferences, expectations and aspirations, innovation becomes so much more profound and impactful. This leads to creative, new and game-changing products, business models and processes that create new value, change behaviours and drives growth.