Why You Should Stop Obsessing Over "Disruption"

After the pandemic, it's time to start thinking about what people truly need.
Why You Should Stop Obsessing Over "Disruption"
Image credit: Courtesy of Alex Lazarow

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This story appears in the July 2020 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Entrepreneurs create solutions — but with the world bogged down in problems, it’s hard to know where to begin. Global investor Alexandre Lazarow has some advice: Take inspiration from companies built in the most difficult environments.

Lazarow is the author of the book Out-Innovate, in which he studied 200 companies built in small and often challenging marketplaces — where resources and talent may be scarce, and where economic uncertainty reigns. So how do those entrepreneurs there thrive? “They have sustainability and resilience built into their DNA, and into the operational fabric of the business,” he says. Here, he talks about how to take a long-term approach and build for the future.

Related: Innovation Prevails During Times of Crisis

How do you innovate in such a time of uncertainty? 

In Silicon Valley, they’re obsessed with disruption. Everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted. But what we need today is different. We need creators. This isn’t a semantic difference; it’s offering a product or service that wasn’t already available in the formal economy, or available at all. And these entrepreneurs are the shoulders upon which others build, so they’re actually building their ecosystems at the same time.

Here’s an example: M-Pesa, a mobile banking startup in Kenya. They created a payment system, and now 80 percent of Kenyan adults use it as their primary method. That enabled a whole host of other industries across energy, education, healthcare, etc., that were never possible before.

That’s what I’m talking about: How do we channel this creator’s mindset to solve problems domestically and internationally, to capture meaningful opportunities in the market? Coronavirus is laying bare the challenges we have in our society; we have to face them differently than we have before.

Related: Cultivating Curiosity Is What Drives Innovation

I’m reminded of George Packer’s old description of Silicon Valley startups: They solve “all the problems of being 20 years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up.”

Nailed it. Part of the solution is who is solving the problem! To solve the most impactful problems, we need entrepreneurs with more diversity of thought, geography, gender, and culture.

Once an entrepreneur has a solution, what next?

I think we’ve been plagued by this notion of “Move fast and break things,” where it’s OK to take risks and make mistakes with no mention of the consequences. We have an opportunity to revisit that, for the better. The best entrepreneurial creators are also managing risks. They build risk management into their KPIs, their operations, their culture.

Related: What I Learned From Mr. Rogers About Disrupting While Being Disrupted

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take risks; it means figuring out what risks are acceptable. We don’t know what best practices will be yet, but let a lot of ideas come from the bottom up. It’s the folks at the front line, who know a business really well, who can guide some of this.

We’re talking about building for the future, but…when exactly does “the future” start?

The author William Gibson once said, “The future’s already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.” The problems of tomorrow are still going to be the problems of today, and the problems of yesterday. Healthcare, education, financial inclusion — those are not new challenges. Try to identify a pain point in your community, and in your society, that you feel really passionate about and that you have an approach to tackling. That’s a really good place to start. 

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