Earlier this year I started a podcast called Disruptive Conversations. The goal of the podcast is to gain insight into how disruptors think and disrupt. The premise of the podcast is simple. I interview people who are working to disrupt a sector or a system. Any sector, any system. During the podcast, I use a list of questions to guide the discussion. In general, I follow the questions and try to stay on script, but that does not always happen.
Here are five lessons I have learned so far.
Disruptors embed themselves into the domain or sector they are working to disrupt before committing to the work.
Brendan Wylie-Toal from Green House incubator at the University of Waterloo, for example, requires that students find out everything they can about the domain they are seeking to disrupt. He encourages them to embed themselves in their problem domain. He has found that too often students choose an issue that they are passionate about, but they are outsiders. From his experience, if students are to have any hope of impacting the system, they need to become insiders. They need to embed themselves in that system. They need to understand the challenges of the domain. Who has tried what in the past. What worked and what didn’t work.
One of the best examples of this kind of deep dive, is the work being done at InWithForward. In a future podcast, Sarah Schulman explains how she and her colleagues deep dive into their problem sets and how they work hard to include stakeholders in the journey. Her work with InWithForward is authentically emergent. She and her team rarely know where they are going to land until they have started making sense of the data, or until they have landed. In an ambiguous context like that, it is important to bring your stakeholders with you as you build that bridge to a disruptive future.
Bring stakeholders along with you.
In the most recently released podcast, Chris Ferguson, founder and CEO of Bridgeable, a strategic design firm based in Toronto, argues that understanding from the perspective of the user is key to generating impact and innovation in any system or sector. He and many other design professionals are producing innovations for clients by using approaches like Design Thinking and Ethnography that privilege generating insight by immersing themselves in the problem set as an approach to finding solutions. This deep dive approach has been a key theme throughout the podcast interviews thus far.
When I asked Chris how he convinced clients to try new approaches, he said that it was important to bring clients with you on the journey. Within the disability and healthcare space, there is a popular saying “nothing for me without me”. The same goes for disrupting sectors or systems. When we deep dive into these rich problem sets, not only do we need to do so intentionally and ethically, we need to bring our stakeholders with us on the journey.
Bake your objective into the core business strategy.
If we are serious about disrupting a sector or system, then our strategy or approach must be embedded into the core business. Phillip Haid co-founder and CEO of Public Inc, a social impact marketing agency, was the first podcast I released. In his podcast, he made the point that companies cannot disrupt on the sidelines. Companies need to bake their objectives in the core of the business strategy. purpose right into their business. For example, in his work he helps clients forefront purpose. In that podcast, he gave several examples of how some companies are and have turned purpose into profit by baking it into the core of their business.
In a future podcast with Kaitlin Mongentale, she talks about her company, Pulp Pantry. Pulp Pantry has purpose baked into its DNA. Her company works with organic juicers to turn their food waste, juice pulp, into healthy treats or snacks. In this podcast, Kaitlin talks about how purpose guides everything she does in the company. Her purpose is to reduce food waste, so although she might be starting a company that works specifically with juicing companies. She has a larger mission, which is to use her company as a model for how businesses can turn waste from a variety manufacturing sectors into new products. She has purpose baked right into the company.
The people work is just as important as the technical work.
Jennifer McRae, in the second podcast I released, made the point that systems are a collection of people. The systems and sectors we are seeking to disrupt are reflections of ourselves. We create the very systems and sectors we are seeking to disrupt. She places a high premium on personal transformation as the first step in disruption. Chris Ferguson also makes the point that it is the people stuff that he finds most challenging. We are the ones that need to change if we are going to disrupt sectors and systems. The people work is just as important as technical work. Although it is important to have a strong business model or a well-designed product, we need to work on changing how people in the systems and sectors we are operating think and act in their daily routines.
Do it. Pick up the phone. Do not wait until whatever excuse you have to start. Just do it.
In the podcast, I ask people what was the ‘aha’ moment that led them to the work they are doing? For many of the people I interview, the journey was not easy and they are still navigating roadblocks. What many of them seem to have in common is that they acted on their insight. They went for it. They did it. They took a risk. They had no idea how they were going to do it, but they started the journey by putting one foot in front of the other. For some people, it was just making a phone call, for others it was doing some research. No matter what it was, an important observation for me has been that they are all continuously reflecting on their purpose, their craft, and how they can improve. They saw an opportunity and went for it.
They had no idea how they were going to do it, but they started the journey by putting one foot in front of the other. For some people, it was just making a phone call, for others it was doing some research. No matter what it was, an important observation for me has been that they are all continuously reflecting on their purpose, their craft, and how they can improve. They saw an opportunity and went for it.
Takeaways after interviewing disruptors.
The disruptors I have interviewed thus far are disrupting sectors and systems in unique ways. Some of the techniques they are using are not new, but they are untapped in many industries, and there is massive potential for savvy entrepreneurs and disruptors.
In thinking about what I have learned so for, Ashely Good said it best when she was featured on the podcast. She has crafted an interesting job for herself. In her consulting practice FailForward, she works to help people and organisations fail better. In that podcast, she asked, how do we build organisations where individuals do not have to choose to be courageous, honest and open? Instead, being courageous honest and open is the norm within organisations. In my own consulting is it very frustrating when people are more concerned about what others may think about new approaches. It is a good to remember that systems are made of people, and if we are engaged in disruption, we also must disrupt mindsets. I have only just started interviewing people who are working to disrupt a sector or system, but I look forward to continuing to share the what I have learned. To learn more from these disruptors, feel free to download the podcast Disruptive Conversations.