They say you can’t make an omelette without cracking some eggs. I take that to mean that new ideas are often disruptive. Some are. Others are only increments on what went before and make far less mess. However, the purpose of today’s post is to explore those innovations that come from seemingly nowhere and change everything. I’m talking about disruptive innovation – new ideas that are so fresh and unexpected, that they’ve never been heard of, done or seen before. I’m also talking about the people that produce them – the disruptors.
Let’s say you’re one of those strange creatures that can’t help coming up with new ideas that are so radical and innovative, they are inevitably disruptive. Your ideas change the familiar status quo by a large amount. You not only habitually think outside the box, you can see clearly that there is no box. How do you and others like you feel?
What if these kinds of people just cannot help constantly finding new ways to “ding the universe”? They’re just wired that way. They can’t be any other way. How do they fare?
If you’ve ever tried to pursue a new idea, particularly in art, you know from firsthand experience that you often (if not always) encounter resistance, mistrust and doubt, mixed with a measure of derision and hostility. There might even be some violent resentment at the apparent threat you present to the way things used to be. You are iconoclastic, so people that are fond of their idols want you to go away and to not upset their comfortable situation and world view. Why would you want to upset the apple cart? In particular, those wired for incremental innovation (or who tend toward that style of thinking) see disruptive innovators as troublemakers. They are, after all, pursing the “wrong kind” of innovation, from their point of view. The disruptive want to change things too much, or so they see it. Incremental innovation feels far less risky, except that its comparative value is negligible, when considered against disruptive innovation.
So, the life of a perpetually disruptive innovator can be quite unpleasant. While their disruptive innovations might actually be highly valuable (perhaps inestimably so), they live their lives in a state of constant persecution, as “the enemy “of those with no new ideas at all, or worse still, those with incremental innovations, who dislike disruption. They can feel isolated, abused, underappreciated, unloved and undervalued. The people that they encounter often treat them cruelly, as an outsider, with derision and contempt. Their ideas are denigrated and their character degraded and slandered. The non-disruptive can make the disruptive innovator feel freaky and unwanted. Petty jealousies come into play and those others, particularly if they have any power over the disruptor that they can leverage, can do real harm to the life, health, mental wellbeing and feelings of the disruptive innovator, perhaps negatively affecting their livelihood and even their very existence.
It’s a rough existence, being a disruptive influence, but why should that be? Why should a person, that cannot help but be the way they are, feel under constant assault, for the sin of seeing differently and trying to promote ideas of extraordinary ingenuity and worth? Why should their life chances and opportunities be blighted, because they don’t agree with the orthodox consensus? Why is their ability to see further forward in time than most something they need to defend constantly or else hide? If they were disabled, society would (at least mostly, these days) try to accommodate their disability. Why, then, does this particular difference and diversity meet with constant hostility and abuse?
There’s a lot of talk about needing and wanting to embrace disruptive innovations, particularly in business, because these game changers, which frequently start entirely new industries and previously unimagined revenue streams, generate massive economic value. A sure sign that an organisation or group of individuals is only paying lip service to the notion of embracing innovation is if they have a strict dress code, or even unstated cultural norms, which they expect everyone to conform to, as a “team player”. How can you be outstanding, if you’re not allowed to stand out?
It has also been said about disruptive innovators (whose art is ideas) that they shouldn’t be too worried about people stealing their best ideas, because if their ideas are any good, they will invariably have to ram them down people’s throats. That’s very funny, but the best disruptors somehow find a way to make their ideas stick. When they do, though, it’s a better than evens bet that somebody else will take the credit and reap the monetary rewards. To do otherwise would be to acknowledge the value of the disruptive innovator above that of status and hierarchy. That would never do. Disruptors need to be kept in their place, right? Egos might get hurt and noses put out of joint, otherwise. Power might be diluted. But the essence of what disruptors do is to disrupt. That’s why you need them.
To the disruptive innovator, much of what they do intuitively and instinctively comes from their peculiar ability to see patterns that other people miss. Their value is in making those connections and noticing the important trends and patterns. It’s a bit like seeing shapes and faces in the clouds. There is a lovely word for that ability: pareidolia – the ability to perceive significance in seemingly random stimuli. The experience of seeing patterns or connections in seemingly random or meaningless data is called apophenia. The two things are closely related.
Imagine, though, what it must be like to spend your entire life seeing enchanting figures in the air, to try to show them to other people, with delight and enthusiasm, in a generous attempt to share your happiness at having spotted them, only to have those people look up at the very same cloud and respond, “What? I don’t see it.”
Imagine if that was your whole existence – trying to show beautiful things that appear in the metaphorical clouds, to people that cannot see them at all, no matter how clearly they are pointed out and described. It’s somewhat tragic and quite wearing to have to explain things over and over again to people that have no ability or will to grasp or discern them.
The thing about disruptive innovators is that you ignore their insights at your own peril. Sure, the cost of belittling them and their ideas may seem small, and removing them from your sphere of influence might feel safe and comfortably reassuring, but the opportunity cost may be incalculable. What would have happened, for example, if nobody had believed Tesla, when he announced that energy, which could produce light and do real work, could be transmitted over hundreds of miles, through copper wires? What is the value of electricity to the world, since its invention, in bald economic terms? How much revenue has that one disruptive idea alone generated? How much has it benefited mankind? It has never even been estimated, let alone accounted for. Yet, Tesla died penniless.
If you are stuck in a comfort zone of your own making, sometimes a disruptive innovator is the very person you need to move you forward. They can snap you out of your self-constructed mental constraints and show you alternatives, perhaps with different constraints, but ones you can live with, or without constraints at all. It won’t be a comfortable experience, but that’s the point. Their value is in their capacity to be disruptive. That’s their gift and their curse.
All that said, just because you feel discomfort is no excuse to harm the disruptor. Your discomfort is a product of your own regimented thinking, not due to their insights and enlightenment. Feeling pushed into unfamiliar cognitive territory is no excuse for behaving meanly and with aggression. Sadly, that is all too commonly the reaction, though. The disruptor gets beaten up for showing people how to get out of their owner-built mind cages.
So, hug a disruptive innovator today. These misunderstood creatures get so few and deserve them so much. Be a grateful friend to an irritating, confronting, discomforting, disquieting, disturbing, disruptive ideas person. They will expand your mind and your horizons. It’s what they do.
If you happen to be a disruptive influence, I extend my sincere understanding and sympathies to you. Yours is not an easy life. You deserve more love than you get.