3 Mental Barriers to Disruptive Thinking

In the year 2005, a company which I happened to be a part of, disrupted the Telecom world by creating solar-powered telecom infrastructure. This innovative infrastructure had the potential to increase mobile telephone penetration from the then existing 20% (largely urban areas) to 80% (rural and hinterland) in places where there was little or no available electricity.

The move not only changed the way telecom operators served their markets but also caused disruption amongst the existing telecom equipment manufacturers; challenging them to come up with newer profit models, product features, and channel engagement techniques.

Our company had nothing to lose. On the other hand, the existing players were heavily invested in their ongoing businesses. The marginal cost of doing something entirely new was very high for them while the cost of continuing with their existing business method was relatively much lower. 

There are many more examples of major names who were zoned out by disruptive business models; Blockbuster, Kodak, Nokia, Yahoo, Polaroid, and MySpace. The list continues.

When I ask participants in my Disruptive Thinking workshops for examples of organizations that encourage disruptive thinking, the usual names that crop up are 3M, Google and Apple. 

The reason a handful of these companies stand out is because they have been able to institutionalize the disruptive thinking process. Why most others don’t succeed is because of their mental blocks.

The top 3 glaring mental blocks I hear most often from the participants are: 

1.     Fear of making mistakes

2.     It does not seem logical enough

3.     It is not part of my Key Result Area (KRA)

Let’s analyze the top three mental blocks a bit more:

1.   Fear of making mistakes: 

This usually comes out as, “With the way the markets are right now, I wouldn’t advise doing that.” Or, “We are not big enough to attempt this,” or even, “We are too big to try that and fail.” 

No one wants to stick their neck out doing something that might fail, making them look foolish in the process.

Most people will not remember what went well, but everyone will remember the ‘scapegoat’ who made a mess by failing.

Most workshop participants try to externalize this block as an organization ‘culture’ issue over which they have no control. 

But it is also true that they can do better individually. For example, most of us usually have a personal financial portfolio, which has at least one risky asset class (forming say, 20% of the portfolio), which provides the upside, while the other 80% is steady and lower risk. Similarly, we can have at least one out of five projects that we work on which is riskier than the others and has a higher chance of giving us an upside. Even if it does not work out, we still have the other four projects to prove ourselves

Knowingly dealing with a riskier project reduces our fear of making mistakes.

2.  It does not seem logical enough: 

This reason often gets masked as, “It’s too radical,” or, “How do you know it will work? You are not an expert.” Or, “It goes against all combined logic.” 

When I discuss disruptive thinking models, some participants point out that they have been practicing Kaizen for a long time and it serves them well. 

I then ask them if they know about the various types of innovation: 

·       Disruptive 

·       Sustaining 

·       Efficiency

Clayton Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation

It’s then that they realize that what they have been doing all these years involves more sustaining and efficiency innovations rather than any disruptive innovation!

They also start to appreciate that disruptive thinking is not just limited to the product but also value chain elements ranging from the profit model to customer engagement. 

Doblin’s 10 types of innovations

3. It is not part of my KRA: 

At this stage of the workshop, a significant number of my participants say that they do have a disruptive idea, have enough data and cost-benefit analysis to back it all up, but are unsure of how to sell it to the internal stakeholders to take it forward. 

While it’s one thing to have a disruptive idea, it’s another to help it see the light of day. By its very definition, a sophisticated disruptive idea (one that is not so easy for competition to copy) cuts across functions. It means employees attempting this method of thinking must take off their functional mentality hat and put a bigger picture one on.

Given most organization resource constraints and the need to generate quick profits for shareholders, long-term thinking can be given short shrift in most places. 

Your influencing skills come in handy here, if you have an idea which needs selling. 

If one goes beyond one’s defined KRAs and collaborates cross-functionally by finding common ground and understanding emotions, there is a higher chance of being able to sell your disruptive idea to others. Moving from a ‘my idea’ to ‘our idea’ concept ensures there is no insecurity of who will get the credit eventually.

Usually the choice is between – “do I want credit or would I rather see the idea implemented”?

Such people get promoted easily, unlike others who rely just on their pedigree and past work experience to only meet their KRAs.

So what kind of mental blocks do you come across frequently ?

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