Try to scroll through LinkedIn for 10 minutes without reading the word “disruptor” and it’ll prove nearly impossible. This now-pervasive word is linked back to Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, who introduced the notion of disruptive innovation in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997. These days, it seems to be the self-appointed label of entrepreneurs seeking to differentiate themselves in a saturated market; a buzzword for something entrepreneurs want to be. Disruptors are those who instigate an irrevocable change in an industry. How it’s more often applied, though, is those offering a new spin on an existing idea. Novel? Yes. Disruptive? Not quite.
What is a disruptor in business?
Business psychologist Nicki Bass, founder and director of Resilience at Work, believes this desire to cling to the term is partly linked to our culture of exceptionalism, which leads us to feel we’re only worthy when we’re different. Most of those claiming disruption are mere iterations of an existing concept. “We’re always tweaking,” Bass says, “so most developments are evolutionary and happen slowly. There are very few genuine ideas that come in and completely take over.”
Industry innovators and disruptors aren’t automatically good business
We have witnessed genuine disruption, such as Bass’s mention of the indelible mark that Elon Musk has made. But she immediately cautions the harm that disruptive leaders can bring to their workers. “[Musk] gets away with [behavior] that wouldn’t be accepted by any other senior leader,” she says.
It’s easy to see proof of Musk’s genuine innovations, but Bass is concerned with the personal cost to his workers. “Look at what happened to employees of Twitter [now X], many of whom had been working there for years, who depended on it—and during the cost-of-living crisis as well.”
We tend to see the term “disruptor” applied to individuals, rather than leaders acknowledging the role of a team in shifting an industry. Bass thinks that it’s seldom one person who runs with an idea alone, a kind of juggernaut blasting through walls, but rather a group of people united with a common vision.
Bass says, “Working together, we achieve incredible things, and when we undermine that, it’s damaging for our connections and our resilience. We need to think about it in terms of the length of the iterative process and give more credit to teams who are part of the disruptive process.”
Market disruptors are often met with caution
Sophie Wright, founder of WrightCFO, runs a consultancy of fractional CFOs for startups and small and midsize enterprises (rather than those companies hiring in-house). She fell into disruption almost by accident. “I wasn’t setting out to change how other people work,” she admits. “I created what I needed as a CFO and what I found small businesses needed. Then it clicked that this [idea] solves so many problems.” Wright’s business model hinges on other CFOs, where she acts as an intermediary between their expertise and connects them with the needs of the companies that approach her. Businesses tap into top-tier talent that meets their needs, whether it’s three days each week or one day per month.
The highly skilled CFOs also benefit. “Because you’re spreading your experience out over so many businesses, you get so much exposure to different types of work and situations that businesses can be in,” Wright explains. “This becomes part of your experience that you’re able to take to another business and say, ‘Yeah, I’ve done that.’”
Having played a role in disrupting the notion that financial expertise must always be hired in-house, Wright quickly realized there are issues that come with changing the playing field, encountering people who are wary of change and don’t trust it. “You need to be prepared with answers and help them to see your vision,” she says.
How to be a disruptor in business
How then does one adopt the mindset to create potential disruption? The first requirement is patience to allow the proof of disruption to develop. “We have to allow for a period of transition, a longer time period, before we start applying labels,” Bass says, adding that interconnectedness “between those who are using the product or service and those who’ve come up with it” remains integral.
She also highlights curiosity as a key trait. “You’re constantly learning, moving away from the competitive race mindset, looking at what is going on around [you], what [you] can learn from what others are doing, what collaborations will develop [your] ideas further.” Beyond relationship-building and curiosity, Bass recommends “an openness to trying and failing. And there’s also something about being humble, where it’s not about [you] but rather about the change.”
Wright believes that any innovator and disruptor should become comfortable with competition—and quickly. “If you’ve successfully launched something that has changed an industry, soon enough people will end up doing it bigger and better than you,” she warns. “Be prepared to build that competition and protect yourself.”
While disruption may have become an overused cliché, its desirability is here to stay. However, such labels should be treated with caution, particularly when they are self-appointed. We may well be in the presence of a genuine disruptor, but first, consider the most foundational element of any critical inquiry: Where is the proof?
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Tayla Blaire is a South African freelance journalist and copy/content writer for business and lifestyle brands. She enjoys helping new writers find their feet in the world of freelancing, thanks to her background in education. Find her at www.taylablaire.com