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To Achieve Sustainable Success, You Need to Stop Focusing on Disruption. Here's Why — and What You Must Focus on Instead. Instead of zeroing in solely on disruptive innovation, embrace a pragmatic approach to innovation, recognizing and leveraging the potential within ongoing industry shifts.

By Alex Goryachev

Key Takeaways

  • This article highlights the importance of adopting a pragmatic approach to entrepreneurship, focusing on solving real problems rather than chasing disruptive ideas.
  • Success often comes from incremental improvements, gradual progress and small, measurable milestones rather than aiming for overnight disruption.
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There's only one word that is buzzier than "innovation" and "digitization" — one that strikes fear in the executive boardrooms of established companies, while also being used as the pitching mantra for the wannabe hottest startups around the world: disruption.

Today, it feels like every new company wants to "disrupt" something, and many founders preach that "disruption" is what defines a successful new venture.

I think this business philosophy is counterproductive and almost always results in failure.

Don't get me wrong — of course, disruption surrounds us, and the world has changed radically in the last two years. But just because disruption is taking place, it doesn't mean that a successful business strategy needs to be "disruptive" in response.

The truth of the matter is that having disruption as a goal is often counterproductive and takes your company away from real opportunity. In the process of chasing disruptive ideas, founders and teams often lose touch with reality, focusing on the flavors of the month and missing out on real opportunities.

Related: Why Most Founders and Investors Are Wrong About Disruption

Stop thinking disruptively. Start thinking pragmatically.

When I think about cutting-edge pragmatic entrepreneurship, Dyson inevitably comes to mind.

As I write in Fearless Innovation, Dyson products are known for several things: high quality, high price tag and designs unlike any other. Before Dyson, few people would have ever thought of buying a $400 hair dryer or shelling out $500 for a fan with no blades and a huge hole in its center. But here we are. And how we got here is the story of being pragmatic and executing in small, measurable milestones.

In 1978, James Dyson came up with the concept of the bagless vacuum. The young entrepreneur realized that dirt and other debris can be sucked into a cone-like structure that would then be forced out to the edges of the canister, with no bag required. Dyson wasn't focused on disrupting the vacuum cleaning business. His idea came from solving a practical issue. One day, Dyson was fixing his vacuum cleaner and realized that the bag often gets clogged, and as a result, suction power gets drastically decreased.

Being a pragmatic innovator, Dyson created a cardboard bagless prototype on top of his Hoover vacuum. He pitched this idea to possible investors in the vacuum marketplace, looking to see if anyone would be interested in licensing, but every company he spoke to turned him down. They essentially told him, "That's just not how we do things here."

The experience didn't deter Dyson and might even have inspired him. Over the next 15 years, he developed 5,127 prototypes before landing on the vacuum cleaner that has since become synonymous with quality, not to mention design, and made him a household name.

Dyson's success is not in the disruptive technology or a brand-new concept of the vacuum (the patent for the "pneumatic carpet renovator" was filed by J. S. Thurman in 1899) but in his willingness to experiment with discipline and follow a process.

Though the Dyson company has expanded and diversified, it all started with the need to fix a simple problem. Dyson took a pragmatic approach; with no plans to disrupt the market, he was simply looking to make a better product and innovating on top of it repeatedly.

Dyson's work was, and continues to be, pragmatic. When Dyson realized that their latest venture of building an electric car wasn't performing as well as he had hoped for, he cut his losses, learned from failure and moved on with full transparency.

Dyson has a clear mission to design "iconic reinventions that work, perform and look very different." You won't see "disruption" in this statement, though you will note that "reinventions" is prominent, and in fact, Sir James's motto is "Everything can improve."

And of course, Dyson, who as of 2021 was the UK's fourth wealthiest individual, worth an estimated net worth of $16.3 billion, did end up disrupting the market eventually, practically killing the vacuum bag industry, but he only got there by starting with the basics. Ironically, a few years ago, Hoover agreed to pay Dyson, £4m damages for infringing Dyson's patents when creating their bagless vacuum.

Dyson's successes weren't about "disruptive technology" that was looking for a use case. It was about thinking pragmatically, being curious and executing with discipline and an open mind to solve a problem step by step.

Related: Innovation is an Incremental Process. Here are 3 Ways to Reach Your Big Idea.

Start small and think pragmatically

The essence of successful entrepreneurship often lies in the ability to execute on a bold vision and strategy through small, measurable milestones. This approach might not capture headlines like the tales of overnight successes do, but it's the bedrock of sustainable growth and innovation. Starting small allows you to test assumptions, iterate quickly and refine your offerings based on real-world feedback without overextending your resources. Each small step forward is an opportunity to learn and adjust, minimizing risk while maximizing potential for success.

For entrepreneurs, this means breaking down your overarching goals into actionable, bite-sized pieces. Instead of aiming to revolutionize the market out of the gate, focus on achieving specific, achievable goals that contribute to your larger vision. This could be as simple as validating a product feature, securing a certain number of customer sign-ups or achieving a set revenue milestone. Celebrate these victories, learn from the setbacks, and use each as a stepping stone towards your broader objectives.

Embrace gradual progress

Real entrepreneurship is rarely about making a splash with a single, disruptive innovation. More often, it's about the cumulative effect of small innovations and improvements. Embracing the process means understanding that each step, no matter how small, builds upon the last, propelling your business forward in a way that's both sustainable and adaptable.

This step-by-step journey is not just about reaching the market or achieving a particular metric of success; it's about building a foundation for your business that is robust, flexible and capable of withstanding the challenges that come with growth. It means investing in your team, your technology and your strategy in a way that allows for continuous improvement and iteration. It's about creating a culture where learning from failure is just as valued as celebrating success because both are essential to the entrepreneurial process.

Work with disruption, not against it

In a world where disruption is a constant, the ability to adapt and find opportunities within the chaos is a critical skill. Instead of attempting to out-disrupt the disruptors or invest heavily in being the next big thing, focus on how you can leverage the ongoing changes in your industry. This means being acutely aware of the trends, technologies and shifts in consumer behavior that are shaping your sector and thinking critically about how your business can respond in a way that adds value.

Identifying opportunities in disruption could mean pivoting your product to serve an emerging need, adopting new technologies to improve your service delivery or even rethinking your business model to better align with the market's direction. By staying nimble and being prepared to shift your strategy in response to the changing landscape, you can carve out a niche for your business that not only survives but thrives amidst the disruption.

Related: 3 Ways Companies Can Leverage Disruption for Business Growth

Small steps, big impact

Ultimately, the path to enduring entrepreneurial success is paved with pragmatism, patience and a commitment to continuous learning and improvement. James Dyson's journey exemplifies this perfectly. By starting small, embracing the gradual process of growth and learning to work with the disruptions around you, you create a business that's not just looking to be a part of the market but one that's built to last and adapt through the ever-changing tides of industry and innovation.

Dyson didn't set out with the aim to disrupt; instead, he focused on solving a practical problem with a pragmatic approach. This methodology led him to not only eventually disrupt the vacuum cleaner industry but also establish a brand synonymous with innovation and quality. Dyson's story underscores that real success comes from a focus on incremental improvement, understanding the landscape of disruption and leveraging it to your advantage. This approach may not be the quickest route to fame, but it is a proven pathway to building a resilient, adaptable and successful business.

Alex Goryachev

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

AI Executive & WSJ Bestselling Author

Alex Goryachev is an award-winning AI & innovation executive and the WSJ bestselling author of Fearless Innovation. His extensive international experience includes creating and leading Global Innovation Centers at Cisco, as well as accelerating digitization at Pfizer, Amgen, Dell and IBM.

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