How to Think Like a Disruptive Innovator: Surviving the Exercise in Masochism

So here is the dirty little secret about being a disruptive innovator: it is lonely work. People who have made the commitment to innovate have traded the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from running in the middle of the herd in order to go it alone. They have elected to move ahead of the pack – or to go off in an entirely new direction – in their quest to bring their contributions to market (more on this shortly).

It makes one wonder what goes on in the mind of such creatures. Having interviewed, shared meals, and – perhaps more importantly – drinks with hundreds, if not thousands, of innovators over the past three decades, here is our take on the characteristics that may provide some insight into the innovator’s mindset.

  • Off the path, but in the zone. At a core level, disruptive innovators do harbor a need and desire to make a meaningful contribution. Indeed, what separates disruptive innovators from other important creative players in society – such as avant-garde artists and pure scientists – is an underlying confidence that in short order today’s bleeding edge innovation will evolve into a leading edge market differentiator that will ultimately settle into an established competitive requirement that will have raised the level of play for everyone. So while the work in which they engage may be lonely…they are not loners.
  • Skeptical of Tradition, Open to Change. There is an irreverence to innovators. Little respect is given to past accomplishments…particularly if convention stands in the way of progress for no other reason than “it is the way it has always been done.” This impatience with “the way of our elders” often expresses itself in all aspects of their existence, to the frustration of a mass of people who find comfort in routine and ritual. Innovators do not mind when their “cheese” is moved, and are perpetrators of change that can engender conflict and enmity. Innovators don’t seem to care because they find the past to be a testament to the innovators who came before them, and the present nothing but a launch pad for their next new thing.
  • Evangelical Communicators. The best innovators, or at least the most successful, are awesome communicators. They have an evangelical zeal to tell their story, even when the story may be uncomfortable for their audience to consume. Like evangelists, they believe that the future can be brighter than today, and they are committed to converting as many traditionalists as possible to survive and thrive in the future promised land.
  • Birds of a Feather. Innovators like to hang out with other innovators. Many innovators are natural networkers who have connected the dots between collaboration and innovation. They believe that the most impactful innovations require an eco-system in which to gestate and develop. They recognize that innovation is most often a byproduct of a system of ideas that can become a platform upon which other ideas can be built. They are, consequently, always on the lookout for fellow travelers on the frontiers of innovation with whom to hook up, ideate and create.

Obviously, this just scratches the surface of the innovator’s world view. But at their core, they possess a brand of intellectual courage that spills into other aspects of their lives as they challenge the status quo to change the world.