Plenty of entrepreneurs claim that they are "disrupting" their industry. But, Luke Williams, a professor of innovation at NYU Stern School of Business and author of Disrupt (FT Press, 2010), says most companies deal only in incremental changes that support their current business model -- and that's not enough.
For example, while many business experts often point to Kodak's downfall as an example of a business that failed because it didn't innovate, he maintains that every business is a Kodak. "It's hard to put your hand into a car's engine when the car is still running, but that's what disruptive innovation is -- changing the way things are done before your business is backed into a corner," said Williams, who spoke to a crowd of 800 business leaders at the World Innovation Forum in New York City last week.
In order to find the potential turning points that will take an industry in a new direction, leaders must give their employees permission to stop focusing only on what needs to be accomplished by the end of the day or week. They must "force strategic introspection on a regular basis," Williams says. The goal is to consistently carve out unstructured creative time.
Implementing this practice is part of a new set of leadership skills that he maintains 21st century companies will need as they move from the information age to the creative age -- a time when things can change drastically and at breakneck speed.
However, folding new approaches into your existing strategies is too passive of an approach to innovation, Williams says. The skills of trying to predict where your industry is going or what your customers might want aren't as important as the skills of provocation.
In order to discover a creative and disruptive new approach, Williams says you need to ask outlandish questions and be willing to fail. "Innovation is largely about the questions we ask rather than the answers," he says.
The first step to coming up with those questions is to surface the clichés in your business, the best practices and the things that keep everyone thinking the same way, he says.
For example, in the late 80s when most TV sitcoms followed the same formula of hugging and learning a lesson at the end of the episode, Larry David created Seinfeld, a show with famously self-centered characters. Another example is the Little Miss Matched apparel company, which decided to build a business around selling non-matching socks in sets of three.
Neither of these innovations solved a problem. Instead, they were paying attention to what's usually ignored and challenging accepted standards. It's good to be wrong in the beginning so you can be right at the end, Williams says. "Nothing kills a new idea faster than common sense. You need common sense at the other parts of the process, but at the start, it will kill you every time."