Organizations are constantly subjected to forces of change. Some change is driven by internal considerations, while others are due to external factors, some out of necessity, while a few are fueled by inspiration and drive. When we think about inspiration and drive, we think about leaders who productively disrupted their organization to create something new and different that hadn’t existed until they pushed the conventions to the limit.
When Steve Jobs was CEO of both Apple and Pixar, he maintained an incessant focus on excellence. His reputation in his early years at Apple portrays him as somewhat tyrannical about it, but the people closest to him say that his candor was always laced with compassion (Catmull, 2014). His desire to disrupt, pushed himself and others to think and create beyond imagination. Undoubtedly, he is remembered as a controversial leader, but he is also considered one of the greatest innovators, entrepreneurs, and business tycoons that the universe has ever seen.
Jobs had a few key characteristics that made him successful. He was driven, profound in his thinking, possessed an uncanny ability to say no, and cared deeply about the collaborative process. At times, he was also dissentious and outspoken, which often meant that he argued relentlessly to get what he wanted. He was surely opinionated, and he went to great lengths by forcefully assembling what he considered to be the right people to get the work done. The problem is that the same qualities that made him successful–giving him the skills and abilities as CEO of two of the most creative and profitable companies ever (at the same time)–are precisely what got him fired from Apple in the first place and likely the reason that people still describe him as arrogant and even nasty.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Steve Jobs fan; it’s impossible to dismiss the fact that he was revolutionary in his ways. He gave us personal computers when the idea was laughable and then he put one in our pockets. He changed the way that we interact with music and then he built a platform to buy it that had never before been conceived. But, to do these things, he disrupted the business world, the status quo in more than one industry, and our modern culture as we know it. So we ought to do our best to learn from him, for better or worse, to apply a little of what made Jobs tick in our own leadership scenarios. It’s possible for all of us to be a bit more productively disruptive in our own organizations.
The good news is that you don’t need to be Steve Jobs or even hire a Steve Jobs to garner success in much of the way that he did. However, let’s dissect what made him, and other disruptors, so wildly accomplished in business and life when the people around him dismissed his character as flawed, doubted his predictions, and dreaded the interactions they might have with him. It’s time that we value the rebels, the radicals, and the renegades.
Productive disruptors understand that change and instability, for good or bad, both internal and external, are the only true constants. As a result, they skillfully leverage problems as opportunities by creating a culture that encourages people to willingly identify and fix areas that need to be improved. They foster an environment where innovation and ideation are the norm rather than the exception.
The interpretive and diagnostic approach to challenges includes three distinct steps. Organizations often don’t get to even experience Step One, and it’s only at Step Three where true innovation can occur. Once we realize the way each step works, we can cultivate a setting that maximizes Step Three through people, culture, and space.
Step One–Problem Solving: A Traditional Approach to Improvement
Every organization has issues and problems-of-practice. If you take a couple minutes, grab a pen and a pad of paper, we’re certain that you can identify several things that need to be fixed, improved, polished, or, worse yet, thrown out in your life and work. Problems are plentiful, but good, viable solutions are not. To combat this imbalance, disruptive leaders know that in order to land on the right solutions, teams must thrive in a collaborative culture. Dr. Collier (2016) explains that skillful problem-solving works best among those who embrace the “yes, and” approach, which builds a team-oriented path to solving issues by capitalizing on the fact that many problems are the result of various breakdowns throughout an organization and not isolated to one area or department. This type of problem-identification and solution-minded manner of dealing with issues is the most traditional way that organization tackle challenges. Too often, when leaders perceive themselves as trapped by their problems, they admire the issues without addressing them head-on and holistically. But system and design thinking are becoming more mainstream for organizational success. Using “yes, and” allows leaders to acknowledge current conditions and add a future consideration. Too often, our cultures revert to “yes, but…” Step One pushes for a problem solving approach.
Step Two–Constructive Dissonance: An Uncommon Approach to Growth
Receiving difficult feedback is hard to hear regardless of the circumstance. We are easily unnerved and fall prey to our sensitivities, which can limit the growth of our organization by the culture that we create. Disruptive leaders recognize that the workforce around them must be able to freely communicate ideas and thoughts, even when they are different, unwelcomed, and against the grain. Yes, they must be aligned to the vision and core values of the organization, but they don’t have to honor the status quo. They should push boundaries, revealing areas of need that typically go unnoticed or get ignored. As Jim Collins (2001) writes: it’s a key characteristic of the “Level 5” leader to embrace humility with a “fierce resolve” for improvement. Humble yet disruptive leaders create a culture that requires everyone to speak out and speak up because of a true desire to question everything with, “what do we need to do to make this even better?” This creates constructive dissonance, which takes problem solving to a new level, but it doesn’t always initiate something totally new like we’ll see in Step Three. It’s more growth and improvement centered than it is innovative or inventive.
Step Three–Break It: An Extraordinary Approach to Innovation
How we frame situations, programs, and products is critical to unveiling new ideas and capitalizing on various challenges. This step requires a whole new lens for organizational growth and innovation. The strategy is designed to combat a desire to rest on previous successes. Zuckerberg once touted the mantra, “move fast and break things,” which he later revised to “move fast with stable infrastructure” (Statt, 2014). Innovation requires a new way of thinking, which often goes beyond problem solving or making incremental adjustments. It’s a growth strategy that relies on proactive thinking and anticipation based on new and different ideas. Often this approach unveils a new and better approach, solution, or idea that totally removes the old and replaces it with something altogether new and different. Productive disruptors tend to break rules and make messes in the pursuit of an improved alternative. The ideal is not just to solve a problem or fix something, but rather explore new territory altogether, not confined by artificial boundaries or rules. This is akin to an artist needing a completely new canvas versus trying to rework an already established painting. It means leaving a first version behind or breaking the system to start over.
Incorporating Step Three into your organization requires extreme focus on three areas–how we support people, how we establish culture, and how we create space for productive disruption to occur. This will ingrain, Break It, as an expectation not just a novel idea.
Powering Step Three: 3 Solution-Driven Ideals
The following ideals are uncomfortable, which is what makes them rare, but they’re critical to building an organization that values innovation at its core. These three ideals are each grounded in evidence and research, and they represent true leadership. The definition of leadership is influence, the challenge of leadership is conflict, and the result of leadership is change. Productive disruptors create change through conflict that results in their influence for something new and different to occur. These three ideals are what support Step Three.
Ideal #1–Focus on the People
Great leaders know that it’s never policies or programs that get the work done; it’s the people. To get to Step Three, and past the traditional problem-solution model, leaders must create an environment that supports the people who are willing to do the breaking–the people who make a mess, challenge the status-quo, and often make others uncomfortable. Francesca Gino (2018) calls these people “rebels,” and she notes that they have distinct insight and talents that they bring to the table. Leaders who crave innovation need rebel talent on the team. That means that we need to hire and support rebels, but it also means that we need to foster rebel-behavior in people who might otherwise be stifled by rules. For creative solutions for old problems to emerge, to replace fundamental beliefs with new ones, leaders have to idealize disruption and accept some of the disorder that comes before change can occur.
Technical Tip: At some point, every rising executive reaches a place where the work is viewed through who can best support the desired outcome. We have to shift our focus from what is getting done to who is getting it done. Look for individuals with great perceptual acuity, the ability to “see around corners,” to bring creativity and innovation to your team. We have to recognize our risk-takers and reward our “rebels” so that everyone understands that we value disruption and innovation over traditions and status quo.
Ideal #2–Focus on the Culture
We center productive disruption as a cultural norm in organizations. It’s evident that some organizations inherently invite and support disruptors and some do not. The point, though, is that if you’re interested in innovation–or real problem solving at any level, disruption has to be embedded in the culture. This doesn’t come without what Ray Dalio (2017) calls “radical transparency.” This is a level of candor that goes beyond facing the facts or confronting reality to being brutally forward with thoughts and ideas. It means being critical with almost a hint of insensitivity. Dalio explains that it’s only when we truly desire criticism and feedback that we’ll accept it openly to improve ourselves and the organization.
Technical Tip: Every great organization has a clear vision coupled with crystal clear core values. Great leaders list and post their organization’s core values everywhere so that they are imprinted into everyone’s minds. They leverage their core values to ensure that the work is aligned to the vision and goals. Make sure your organization’s core values support change, new ideas, and innovation; one such value is “transparent communication.”
Ideal #3–Focus on the Space
For new thoughts to emerge and for sharing to take place at the highest degree, we need time and space to come together with the right atmosphere for the people. Pat Lencioni’s (2002) composite character, Kathryn, found her team to be totally dysfunctional when she arrived as their new leader. They weren’t getting results, they lacked accountability, commitment was low, they feared conflict, and trust was simply absent. What Kathryn did to mend the team and revive performance was to create space where vulnerability and safety could occur. She established trust by allowing for dissonance but then pulling together the thoughts of every member of her team into a synthesized plan that they could all get behind. She didn’t allow disagreements to fester; instead, she actually brought them to the surface, making it okay to push back while at the same time holding one another accountable. She acted as a guide and a facilitator, and, ultimately, she communicated care through her firm decision-making once she gained insight from the team. She was only able to do this because time and space were available for the team to hash things out in a way that hadn’t happened before she started creating it for them.
Technical Tip: Transform meetings into a place for open-source ideas. Create space and maximize collaboration by setting and adhering to strict meeting times and establishing meeting norms for transparency, engagement, and accountability. One way to do this is to organize agenda items to a person with an associated time and intended purpose. Each item should be marked as dissemination, decision, or discussion. This approach lets people know how to participate with the agenda items–take notes to share with others, help to create a plan, or to brainstorm new ideas designed to break things.
At TheSchoolHouse302 we equate Steve Jobs with an insatiable desire to simply make things better regardless of how good they are already. We even take that one step further, as Jobs often did, by pursuing the impossible. Excellence is a never-ending pursuit that is not confined by artificial boundaries or limiting ideals. There are countless advances with otherwise unforeseen outcomes, from the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming to Henry Ford’s commitment to building the V8 engine, all of which remind us of what was once considered the impossible. Productive disruption is the result of not only great minds coming together, but the faith and belief that progress really is limitless. As a leader, have the courage to allow your organization to break it by remembering to focus on the people, focus on the culture, and focus on the space.
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Joe & T.J.
Catmull, E. (2014). Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the unforeseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration. New York: Random House.
Collier, C. (2016, November 21). How To Adopt A Collaborative Problem-Solving Approach Through ‘Yes, And’ Thinking. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2016/11/21/how-to-adopt-a-collaborative-problem-solving-approach-through-yes-and-thinking/#70271d636694
Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap…and others don’t. New York: HaperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Dalio, R. (2017). Principles: Life and work. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Gino, F. (2018). Rebel talent: Why it pays to break the rules at work and in life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Statt, N. (2014). Zuckerberg: ‘Move fast and break things’ isn’t how Facebook operates anymore. Retrieved from https://www.cnet.com/news/zuckerberg-move-fast-and-break-things-isnt-how-we-operate-anymore/