There is a big misconception about disruptive companies. You do not necessarily have to reinvent the wheel to be successful — unless the tire is flat. You just need to know the difference.
Sometimes companies can take an existing product or technology and create something completely new out of it. The wheel may already be there, but it might be able to do much more than what it was originally intended for.
Identifying this opportunity for disruption requires keen insights from company leaders who can appreciate the innovations developed by the team while being focused on how that innovation can fulfill market needs elsewhere. The key is figuring out how the bits and pieces (just like peanut butter and chocolate) come together to present a new solution (Reese’s peanut butter cup).
Sometimes this type of innovative disruption comes about entirely by accident. That was the case when Arthur Fry was trying to find a better way to place bookmarks in his hymnal. He decided to use a low-tack adhesive that a scientist at 3M named Dr. Spencer Silver invented — albeit without a specific purpose for it at the time. This marriage of invention and purpose resulted in the ubiquitous Post-it note.
Aside from the few cases when needs met solutions so accidentally (and perhaps conveniently), in most cases innovation is created purposefully, with the innovator focused on solving a problem the market may not know exists.
Take for example the iPhone. In 2007, we already had cellphones that operated pretty much as regular landlines, except they allowed us to send and receive phone calls when away from the office or home. Although we were pretty content with that technology, Steve Jobs envisioned new possibilities that combined aspects of computers with existing cellphone functionality. He introduced a new type of device that people didn’t even realize they needed, yet, today, can’t imagine living without.
So, how does this carefully honed disruption come about? Companies need a leader who can think beyond the discovery at hand and envision ways to leverage it for entirely new markets, technologies or products, whether through partnerships, licensing deals or acquisitions.
Questions To Ask
Identifying disruptive technology and determining its impactfulness can be difficult. How to be innovative is not necessarily something that can be learned. Rather, it starts with hiring people who are truly inspired by the science. If there isn’t an innate passion, not only in leadership but also pervasively throughout the team, to discover and invent things, your company won’t be disruptive.
Yet, some business questions can set you on the path of discovery. Answering the following questions will be a good start toward the creation of a potentially disruptive solution:
Can we do it? Do we have the expertise to combine technologies and products into a workable solution? Is it scalable, or will it work only in the lab?
Part of the answer is based on the available technology. The other part of the answer is whether the company has the right people, the ability to make the correct new hires, or access to a motivated and willing partner.
What will it cost? How long will it take to develop and do we have enough money to invest in the R&D and then bring it to market?
Based on your answer, the next question may be, how do we secure additional funding to make it happen?
Is there a market for it? Does it solve a need? Even if it solves a need, is there a large enough market for the solution that is sustainable and generates a return on investment (ROI)? You need to make sure the potential market is large to generate a profit after development costs — you don’t want to spend millions on a market worth only thousands of dollars.
Can you test whether or not the hypothesis about market demand is correct? This becomes more challenging if you’re developing a solution for a problem the consumer doesn’t yet recognize or know that one needs.
Can we take it to market? Just having a disruptive solution isn’t enough. You also need to know that you can sell it. In some markets, you need third-party companies who specialize in that particular market. If you don’t have their cooperation, even if there’s demand for your product, you won’t be able to sell it. You need to make sure you understand how the market works and how to get your product in front of potential customers.
It doesn’t take the invention of a new wheel to disrupt markets as we know them. Sometimes, it only takes a new way of looking at it and then having visionary leaders and innovative teams made up of the right people, a tolerance for risk, and the inspiration to want to do disruptive things. In our view, this perspective is disruptive in its own right.