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As marketing has become a measurable science, and dollars have flowed from other parts of the business to the CMO, so too has the pressure to innovate grown. As a result, when I lead strategy workshops, without exception someone in the room asks, “How do we become disruptive?”

Looking at the success of disruptors like Uber and iTunes, or disruptive technologies like 3D printing, it’s a tempting question.  Disruption seems so sexy and exciting!

Truly disruptive businesses, however, call for significant behavioral change on the part of consumers. And changing behavior is harder than we think. For every Uber, there are dozens of products you forgot ever existed. (Remember when Google Glass was going to take over the world?)

And even for those that succeed in disrupting an industry and developing a new market, world domination is a fleeting reality. Followers capitalize on shifting consumption patterns to nibble away at market share. In fact, The Economist reports that, historically speaking, “innovators [have] captured only 7% of the market for their product over time.”

How Can You Tell If Your Company is Meant to Be a Disruptor?

Of course, just because disruption is hard doesn’t mean we should stop striving for it. It does mean, on the other hand, that we should make sure it’s the right path for our organization. As marketing executives, it’s our job to lead the company towards profitable, sustainable business. And sometimes that’s more nuts and bolts than shiny, new sizzle.

Here are some indicators that the path of disruption might be right for you:

  • Your organization is patient. While you have big goals and even bigger ambitions, you celebrate the small milestones and understand long-term plays. It takes a significant amount of time to build traction and make a disruptive idea profitable. The “overnight success stories” we read about are mythical. It takes a lot of work to get to that tipping point of success.
  • The team is unwavering in their commitment to the innovation you are bringing to market. While your big idea might be packaged differently, or sold to an unexpected market, what can’t change given the many obstacles you’ll face, is your team’s faith in the vision and their willingness to make it a reality.
  • You are prepared for copycats. If your idea has legs, others will copy it and make it their own. You cannot build a business plan that relies on no competition. If copycats scare the team, they won’t be able to stomach the inevitable onslaught of new players.
  • You won’t make money for a long time and everyone understands that. The team is willing to invest the money and resources needed to see your big idea through to completion, which can take years.
  • You have a leader with a larger than life personality. You really need someone with intelligence and charisma who can evangelize on your behalf, even when (or, especially when) the world tells you your idea won’t work.
  • You actually have an amazing idea! This one is really the most important. Disruptive ideas don’t come from brainstorm sessions to create disruptive ideas. They come from genuine insight and a deep-seated passion that develops over time into something that can be executed against.

For most organizations meeting the above criteria is not practical. That’s OK. Successful businesses aren’t all about disruption and most do creative, interesting things in other ways.

If You Can’t Disrupt, What Can You Do?

Disruption is not for everybody. Still, there is always something new, daring, or even innovative that you can do. For example, you could…

  • Take a complex process and simplify it, à la American Express’s Square payment system.
  • Upgrade an existing product with new capabilities. How many iPhones have you bought? I’m on my fourth!
  • Take an existing offer and identify a new market to sell into.
  • Deliver expertise as a service not previously offered.
  • Discover or cultivate a new distribution channel for your product or service.

Practical is Good

As marketing leaders it’s our job to uncover market opportunities and match them to the culture of our company. I know that practical isn’t always trendy or hot, but it often helps you achieve your goals (and make money!).

Don’t be afraid to leave disruption to the cool kids. Sustainable profitability is the new sexy.

Image Source (Creative Commons): Charles Knowles.

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