Are You Dutiful or a Disruptor? Career Advice for the Innovator in All of Us

iStock_000009286763XSmallBy Nikole Grimes

A recent six-year study observed the habits of innovative entrepreneurs revealing a set of discovery skills that distinguish the most creative executives. The most entrepreneurial and innovative CEOs spend 50% more time on these discovery activities than leaders without a track record of innovation. The discovery skills highlight that innovative entrepreneurs connect disparate ideas and concepts, interact with diverse people from all walks of life, ask questions of the world at large, keenly observe behaviors, and test their ideas.

So what are these discovery skills? They are associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking with one sub-trait underpinning all five of the discovery skills. What is this subtrait? Disrupting.

The most innovative leaders – those leading inventors whose ideas and businesses literally transform the way our world works – continually assess, evaluate, and analyze existing perspectives. Subtly and not-so-subtly, these leaders challenge the status quo.

Innovators disrupt traditional ideas through the skill of associating. They connect seemingly unrelated issues and concepts, resulting in fundamental shifts in perspective.

They disrupt the assumptions that underpin existing systems through the skill of questioning – asking “why”, “why not”, and “what if.” In order to get the most complete view on a topic, they will frequently take a position that is opposite their own initial perspective. They ask challenging questions that push themselves and others to break through to new ideas.

Visionary leaders disrupt even small things by observing common everyday behaviors and then considering alternatives to the standard ways things are done.

This sub-trait, disrupting, is also expressed through the skill of experimenting – by literally trying new things, testing new concepts, and doing old things in new ways, they explore and encourage the exploration of alternatives.

When they are networking with a wider array of people from all walks of life they disrupt the hierarchical culture of most businesses. Instead of limiting their network to their peer group, transformative visionaries actively seek the cross-pollination of perspectives across fields, cultures, and countries.

The greatest innovations are inherently disruptive and the sub-trait of disrupting underlies all of the discovery skills. In a Forbes piece, “Disruption vs. Innovation: What’s the difference?” author Caroline Howard wrote, “Innovation and disruption are similar in that they are both makers and builders. Disruption takes a left turn by literally uprooting and changing how we think, behave, do business, learn and go about our day-to-day.”

Women & Disruption
Disrupting is increasingly valued by corporations and is now frequently covered in business-related media. For example, the theme of Deloitte’s just-released 2014 Technology Trends report is Inspiring Disruption. The report provides a deep analysis of ten emerging technological innovations. By identifying disruptive technologies as they are developing, you can best plan for and even capitalize on them.

Also covering distruption was Forbes. A 2013 article asked, “Who are the people shaking up their fields most dramatically?” and named The 12 Most Disruptive Names in Business. They identified twelve businesses, only one of which is led by women.

Jennifer Hyman and Jenny Fleiss are co-founders of Rent the Runway, a company that is upending fashion business by making high-end designer clothing available at modest prices via rentals. For example, a $3,000 gown rents for just $80. On the topic of disruption, Hyman was quoted, “Our intention is to disrupt every single part of what retail has meant historically.”

Why are so few women among the most disruptive names in business or counted among the innovative entrepreneurs cited in The Innovator’s DNA study?

Some insight can be gleaned from a New York Times interview with Amy Schulman, then executive vice president and general counsel at Pfizer. She described the traditional model of success for women as that of the dutiful daughter; an expression she says comes from the late poet and essayist Adrienne Rich and meaning, “the good girl behind the scenes.”

Schulman explains that “A good law associate is organized, methodical, writes things that other people sign, prepares draft arguments that other people deliver and is in a kind of perpetual apprenticeship role.” Women often excel in this capacity, remaining “in the pipeline” at major law firms but never making partner. They exist as the good girl behind the scenes rather than thriving as the disruptive entrepreneur at the forefront of innovation.

From Dutiful to Disruptive
If disrupting distinguishes everyday employees and executives from truly transformative leaders, and if you want to be a better innovator, then the single most important thing you can do is to embrace disruption in yourself and in those you lead.

Managing disruptive employees can give us major headaches, but pay attention to those people. That one challenging employee who is always asking, “Why do we do it this way? What if we tried it this other way?” might just be the one person best able to help take your company to the next level.

Cultivate that person. Engage them through the discovery skills – listen when they are making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas; teach them to refine their questions; take note when they observe behavioral phenomena; encourage them to experiment; and empower them to network with a wide range of people. Most of all, remember that disrupting is a trait they share with the most innovative leaders.

There are obvious pitfalls to disrupting. For one thing, it makes people uncomfortable and sometimes, the repeated chorus of “Why?” and “What if?” is simply tedious. But, it is only when we embrace these challenges and embrace disrupting, that transformational innovation happens.