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Disruption to the Rescue

In matters both mundane and critical, it can be easier to simply go with the flow, but to create true waves of innovation, it's vital to disrupt the status quo.

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Disruption happens every time we break with tradition to start something new. Going against what has always been the norm can be isolating and frightening, but only in confronting discomfort, even welcoming it, can discovery begin. After certain fractures, an orthopedic surgeon must cut the bone to realign it properly to prevent a bone deformity — a painful starting point that can forestall future pain and potential disability down the line. Newborn babies wail for good reason; their lungs are working to evacuate the amniotic fluid, adapt from carbon dioxide to oxygen and begin vigorous blood circulation within their first breaths — the most difficult they will take for the rest of their lives. Every great change in history, from the wheel to the Revolutionary War, has come through disruption to achieve “business as usual.” In overcoming the resulting struggles, we emerged stronger and better equipped to survive.

Being disruptive is more crucial today than ever, but it requires acknowledging bigger, scarier issues we would prefer to avoid, that no one has been able to fix and that many have given up on trying to figure out. Innovation in any industry requires disruption — newness only comes from thinking outside of the box and breaking a few norms. The next stage in human evolution will come, not through space exploration, but by having some difficult, disruptive discussions about the state of humanity still on our planet.

Related: The Power of Innovation

Find a moral baseline

To solve long-standing problems — poverty, hunger, gun violence, racial disparity — we need to have disruptive conversations about our moral baseline. Upon diagnosis, a woman in an affluent gated community will have a consistently better breast cancer prognosis than one living in a low-income neighborhood in another zip code in the same state. An African American woman in New Jersey has a significantly lower survival rate than an Asian American or Latina. Our postal code is dictating the care we receive, not our genetic code. Each will receive different levels of care at different stages, treating themselves and being treated differently. Medical research has come so far, and we have the care available but offer it unequally. Not everyone shares the same advantages. As a society, we need to determine our priorities, set standards for human life and then start forging a path towards meeting them, otherwise nothing ever gets done.

More than lip service, disruption requires us to be genuine about our resolve to make change. Most doctors and healthcare professionals are still making determinations through methods rooted in very old ideas about what people need and want. Disruption is about going to those places where people are suffering, actually finding out what they need and coming up with new ways to try and get it to them. By establishing a moral baseline, more people can stop worrying about how to survive so they can start being more productive and even innovative. Until we solve our baseline problems with broad solutions, progress for the sake of progress is moot. Only difficult, disruptive discussions can move us forward

Related: Covid-19 Will Fuel the Next Wave of Innovation

Solve persistent problems instead of popular ones

With so much arguing over the hottest topic of the week, the idea of disruption in today’s environment might sound extreme, but disruption is not the same as bandwagon thinking. For example, we have the luxury of being divided about whether or not we want to get Covid-19 vaccines, but the argument we should be having about vaccines is the inequality. While here in the U.S., rates of full vaccination are only just peaking at 62.7%, as of January 2022, only 10% of the African continent's population has received their full dose. With so many people around the world working on securing everyone against this virus and so much of the global population affected by it, there should be more innovation than that.

As with many other industries, Covid may have highlighted inequalities in medical care, but they always existed. Even here in the U.S., people in rural towns have no access to the vaccine. The cutting edge in breast cancer research does little for women in sub-Saharan Africa, where foreign physicians, male and female, encounter strong stigmas against mammograms and gynecological exams. For some African women, letting a doctor give them a proper checkup is seen as a sin, and the doctors have no way to communicate that such a taboo act is beneficial to them — perhaps even crucial for their survival. While some parts of the world are finding cures and treatments, others still need a great disruption to come in and catch them up. 

Related: 9 Ways Your Company Can Encourage Innovation

Be less tolerant of suffering

If we want to end suffering, we need to be less tolerant of it, around the world and in our own neighborhoods. Princeton is a beautiful city, but a few blocks from the million-dollar single-bedroom apartments, immigrants eke out the barest subsistence in shelters. A patient wrote back in a recent survey that without our nonprofit cancer support services, she would have been homeless. We know these inequalities exist, but as long as they stay out of our line of sight, we can worry about them in silence. Until we ask questions that disrupt that silence, there will continue to be no answers. 

Nobody has the solutions to our biggest problems because few people have the courage to start these conversations, but when they do, they make a difference. In 1976, Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank innovated a loan program for poor women in Bangladesh that conventional banking would typically exclude and that most people thought was crazy. Despite doubts, the model proved profitable, created jobs and pulled families out of poverty, generating an annual $155 million in 2006, the year he earned the Nobel Peace prize. Since its inception, the program has been adopted around the world, including the U.S., but it took time to get many of the women they support to accept the money and hard conversations disrupting their understanding of normal. 

We need to start paying less attention to superficial conversations and start recognizing that fundamental scarcities exist if we ever want to solve them. Physics professors often give each student a paperclip, instructing them to bend it back and forth, to demonstrate that all things must inevitably reach a fracture point — but when each paperclip breaks depends on the student bending it, how quickly and with how much force. By only paying attention to the paperclip once it breaks, we miss out on a hundred opportunities to ease the burden imposed by the breach. Instead of waiting for our breaking point, we need to have hard conversations, confront the norm and be willing to disrupt it.

Hafiz Sikder

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Hafiz Sikder has held leadership roles in healthcare for nearly 20 years. He currently directs Axiom Healthcare Strategies, a New Jersey-based oncology and rare disease think tank.