The 7 ingredients for disruptive innovation

I recently had the joy of discussing how disruptive innovation happens within companies with a bunch of people much smarter than I am. Since the words disruptive and innovation have been used kind of inflationary in recent years, we should clarify what I mean by that. For the purpose of this post, I define it as fundamentally different ideas compared to the status quo.

We identified the following pre-requisites.

  1. space / time
    There needs to be time and (head) space for reflexion and exploration for innovation to happen. The Eureka moment doesn’t come while grinding away on your daily chores.
  2. diverse knowledge / connecting things
    This might either be given by a single person with expertise in several areas or by connecting several people.
  3. trigger
    Even with the right people with the right knowledge in the right place at the right time, innovation won’t happen without a trigger that makes them collaboratively reflect and explore.
  4. collaboration
    The process used to collaboratively create ideas is crucial to allow everyone to participate and bring their knowledge to the table.
  5. channel
    After coming up with a groundbreaking idea you still need a channel to communicate it to the right people. This implies that the people who come up with the idea are heard and get buy-in from decision makers or can make the decision themselves.
  6. execution
    And finally, no idea is worth anything without executing on it.
  7. iterate
    In any case, coming up with great ideas is an iterative process and involves many failures (read: learning opportunities) before success manifests. It’s an acquired skill that requires practice.

Here are some examples of measures that might lead to innovation, but often don’t, plus assumptions why that is.

  • Idea boards in a physical or digital public place provide a channel to surface ideas but often lack an execution mechanism.
  • Hack days or weeks are great at providing space and bringing people with diverse knowledge together. They often lack a channel for greater support and a mechanism to follow-through after the event. The chosen timeframe also has implications. A hack day tends to lead to smallish technology innovation whereas a longer time frame like a week has a higher chance to lead to product innovation.
  • Lunch roulette (i.e. random lunch dates) is a great way to bring people from different parts of the organization together but it lacks a trigger to make innovation happen.
  • Brainstorming and other ideation workshops should allow a group to explore the problem and solution space and finally converge. Often the way they are structured and run prevent everybody – especially people with introverted tendencies – to fully participate.
  • Lateral thinking techniques can help to improve one’s collaboration process.

I am wondering, if there is a way to encourage innovation moments to happen serendipitously? Maybe in the way we structure our teams, our workplaces, and processes? I would very much appreciate your ideas in the comments.

Cover photo by Adam Wilson



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