What if Steve Jobs was rank and file with a view from the cube? Imagine if Elon Musk didn’t quit his Ph.D. program and instead became a career academic. Or if Richard Branson allowed his less-than-stellar academic record to override his entrepreneurial spirit. These three well-known and outspoken disruptors have forever changed the way so many of us work and play. But let’s face it, having a disruptor on your team, either as a colleague, direct report or your boss, isn’t something that would inspire a lot of people to jump out of bed in the morning. Yet where would we be without the disruptors?

Today’s reality is this, as summarized by the CEO of a Fortune 500 company in a recent survey by Farland Group, “If you’re not the disruptor, you will be disrupted. We are entering a new era…and it means there is opportunity to transcend your business and develop new sources of activity or new business models or new opportunities to interact with customers. And if you don’t do that, the risk of doing nothing is to become a company that’s commoditized.”

How can companies attract disruptors and foster real innovation to stay competitive? The answer to this question has led to the rise of corporate hackathons, innovation jams, incubators, and venture capital divisions within blue chip companies. According to CB Insights, corporate VC arms nearly doubled from 2012-2015, with a record number of new corporate VC groups having being formed in 2015.

Fostering disruption within the confines of an existing culture without causing chaos is a tricky balance. Especially when you consider the sentiments of another C-level executive who participated in the survey, “One thing we’re obsessed with right now is creating an organization that can come up with disruptive ideas.”

The Problem with Innovation

Somewhere between having a multi-million dollar start-up investment fund and an army of M&A experts chartered with acquiring disruptive companies, are an entire class of small to mid-sized businesses that are putting more resources toward in-house innovation teams and initiatives. For these companies, disruption isn’t always easy to cultivate.

For one thing, they don’t typically have an abundance of additional resources they can dedicate to creating the next big thing. They’re well aware there’s a price associated with pulling a team away from their day job, even for a few hours.

Then there’s the long path to trial and error that’s time consuming, risky, and can take a toll on morale. And let’s not forget about the existing corporate culture. Arguably, disruptors tend to stand out, which we all know can cut both ways. While your company might very well end up holding the patent to the future, it can’t be at the loss of valuable team players – the ones that keep the engine running as the disruptors experiment.

Three Innovation Hacks

For those companies with small teams dedicated to disruption or those that look to engage in shorter sprints to innovation such as more fruitful hackathons and innovation jams, here are three ways to foster disruption without compromising team dynamics or risking the company’s primary business function or processes.

First, embrace failure. Ever since the “fail fast” catchphrase took hold, companies have been laying claim to their ability to fail fast, fail better, fail forward, and so on. In the real world, try telling an investor about your failures or explain that it’s all part of your growth hacking strategy and you’re likely to be met with a furrowed brow. So how do you differentiate between learning from mistakes, defusing a team’s paralyzing fear of failure, and squandering resources in the pursuit of innovation?

One way to do it, according to a C-level executive, I am experimenting with how to create teams and squads without losing the sense of an anchor. I want to reduce the sense of fear and create a sense of energy.”  Building on this advice, consider assembling teams that represent a cross-section of the organization. One such team would be responsible for identifying areas for improvement across the company while another team would be chartered with mapping out a plan to fix the issue. This way, you bring together different parts of the organization, tap into individual strengths, and tackle a specific assignment in a defined period of time.

A second way to approach it is through the adoption of agile processes. Taking a page from the agile development community, companies are restructuring to support a continuous cycle of iteration and improvement based on internal and external feedback. Applying these principles to business processes, customer engagement, and product development through matrixed cross-functional teams accelerates the learning and improvement process.

The third tip is to build an inner circle of customers, partners and influencers. Going beyond incorporating external feedback as part of an agile business strategy, build an inner circle and dedicate resources to cultivate and manage it. Two of the biggest holdups in cracking the innovation code are keeping ideas too close to the vest and soliciting only positive feedback. To build a constructive inner circle, invite a cross-section of roles, representative of different areas of your business and audience demographics, and encourage them to look for the holes in the plan.

Introducing and cultivating disruption isn’t exclusive to larger organizations with massive resources or garage start-ups that have figured out how to build a better mousetrap. It’s simply become part of the competitive landscape for every business. It’s the ability to adapt to this cultural shift that makes all the difference.


Jane Hiscock, President, Farland Group has more than 20 years of experience building marketing and communications strategies for leading technology, healthcare and financial services brands. She has applied her passion for understanding customer behavior to leading business-to-business brands and has been instrumental in helping her clients build new online and offline executive customer experiences and programs. Jane’s client work includes organizations such as IBM, Huawei, Orange, Morgan Stanley, Fidelity and Microsoft Health.


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