The Five-Step Approach to Disruptive Thinking

By Kaitlin Milliken |  August 22, 2019

The word innovator often evokes images of Silicon Valley turtlenecks and jeans. People think of Steve Jobs as pictured in his biography, gripping his chin and staring down the reader as if to probe, “Are you actually changing the world?” 

However, Luke Williams of New York University cautions against this cult of personality. 

“[W]e celebrate the lives of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, and read the glossy magazine articles…[about] their character traits,” Williams says. “[I]f people believe that they have to have a certain personality type in order to…contribute to innovation, this holds a lot of people back…. [They think], ‘I’m not an innovator. … I don’t have the personality [for it].'” 

Williams is a clinical associate professor of innovation and design at NYU’s Stern School of Business.  His is also author of the book, Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business. Williams’ research focuses on disruptive thinking and leadership, or an organized process for creating breakthrough innovations. 

Instead of manifesting as a byproduct of inherent traits, Williams says disruptive thinking is a skill can be taught to people from all different backgrounds. 

“It’s just like a musical instrument or sport…the more people practice it, the better they get,” Williams says. “Every organization needs to innovate. … They need ideas coming from every corner of the organization.”

During a conversation with InnoLead, Williams walked through the five steps of disruptive thinking, explained the “hybrid” approach to innovation, and discussed what innovators can learn from professional chefs. 

Each Company is a Hybrid

Every business has to play this hybrid role between delivering today…and building options for their future… So sustaining innovation is where you’re making incremental improvements to your existing product, service, or business model. And disruptive innovation is where you’re trying products, services, and business models that…have not been tried before in the segment category. … Or if it’s disruptive innovation within an organization, [it] might be coming up with ideas…that are inconsistent, or maybe in direct conflict, with what you’re currently doing as a business.  

And it’s this hybrid role, which is incredibly difficult. … And really, there are no companies that are doing it really well. 

So I focus on that disruptive innovation. One of the reasons for that is…nobody really has a problem with sustaining innovation. … This is generally what businesses are really good at, and 98% of the classes in business school are designed to teach people how to get better at sustaining innovation… 

[D]isruptive innovation, by definition, is when you’re having an impact on the marketplace with a new product…[or] business model. But long before you get anywhere near having an impact on the market…[the process] starts with basically how you are thinking. … It’s all the conceptual aspects of how you’re viewing your competition, your value proposition, your customer segments, [etc.]… Basically, the way you’re thinking about all those things has to be disrupted before you can get anywhere near disruptive innovation…

The Danger of Feedback Loops

[Sustaining innovation] is growing through continuity, meaning, all the decisions you’re making about what you could do next are based on decisions you’ve already made. … [A]ll the thinking is self referencing… [So] when people are hiring…[for] culture fit, for example…what that means is you think this person is going to be a good fit for your existing system. 

[T]he system of continuity, which you’ve got going right now is a…reinforcing feedback loop. Now, that can quickly change into basically a negative feedback loop or a negative spiral, which is why we see organizations like Blockbuster, BlackBerry, Kodak, Polaroid, seemingly becoming irrelevant or go bankrupt overnight. 

So organizations need to [recognize]…that they’re growing through continuity. They have to add a…balancing loop. So this is a feedback loop running in the opposite direction. And in terms of innovation, this…[involves] knowing that it is your job if you want to grow in a sustainable way to introduce deliberate discontinuity into the system. … 

The Disruptive Thinking Process

This disruptive thinking process is really about five steps. … So it starts with crafting and disruptive hypothesis. [A] disruptive hypothesis is…not a reasonable prediction on what you think is going to happen in the future of your business. … It it is an unreasonable provocation. And the difference is profound. … You need to get into the habit of making unreasonable provocations and giving yourself deliberate permission to be wrong in order to start the process of… [approaching ideas] in a different way. 

You then move from the disruptive hypothesis to actually defining a market opportunity. And here, there’s a lot of design, ethnography, and other research techniques…to make sure you’re linking the disruptive hypotheses up with an unmet need. 

Then, you’re using the opportunity that you’ve discovered as a platform or focus area for the development of disruptive ideas. 

And disruptive ideas then…[can be] turned into a solution. There’s a big difference between ideas and a solution. A solution is always practical, viable, feasible. … So the only way to get from ideas to solutions is of course, through a lot of prototyping, experimenting, finding ways to run low risk experiments and pilots to make sure the ideas have value… 

And then finally, it’s going to make a disruptive pitch that will persuade…stakeholders to invest in or adopt what you’ve created. … A lot of people fall down at this part because they expect that their boss or their stakeholders are going to…invest in innovation, just because it’s new. … But of course, this is the last reason anyone invests in change. They only invest in change if they believe in the value of doing this. So to convince them of that value is what the disruptive pitch is all about. 

The Five Steps of Disruptive Thinking

  1. Create a disruptive hypothesis. 
  2. Find market opportunities. 
  3. Develop disruptive ideas. 
  4. Use those disruptive ideas to build one solution. 
  5. Pitch your solution. 

What Innovators and Master Chefs Have in Common

I often use the metaphor of cooking, for thinking about innovation and innovation leadership. … [W]e know cooking is nothing more than you taking the ingredients…[and] arranging them into a meal. But when it comes to innovation, we don’t think like that. We think it’s about inventing a new technology or something. 

So I often use the cooking metaphor to say disruptive thinking is nothing more than picturing yourself as a master chef in the kitchen. You’re surrounded by ingredients, your job is to take those ingredients and seek an arrangement that makes them more valuable. So…the growth prospect of a business occurs whenever people take ingredients — which are their resources  — and rearrange them into recipes. [These] recipes are the ideas that make those ingredients more valuable. 

The growth prospect for a business is going to come from better recipes, not more cooking. … [I]f an organization has no motivation to seek new recipes, they’re just…content with getting better at cooking the recipes that they’re already using. And that is really what gets them stuck…

Now, we can use that recipe metaphor to say, “Well, okay, how do you start to break out those ingredients, so you can start to rearrange them in different ways.” And that’s a disruptive thinking process.