Corporate Innovation Through Daring Personal Disruption

What do you perceive when you walk through your company building? I mean literally: state the facts that you can observe.

You see people working, meeting, and crossing the hallways. You hear what they say (or you hear silence). You notice situations and what people are doing.

Notice energy, speed of speech and movements, tone of voice, and other nonverbal cues such as eye contact, body posture, facial expression.

Observe the what (what’s being done or said) and the how that’s delivered. Perceive who is alone and who is part of a gathering.

This exercise can tell you a lot about your organizational culture, even though you have to interpret these facts and check the meaning you attribute to them with those you observed.

Three Meeting Rooms

You may observe these three situations:

  • Meeting room one with frowning people who sigh while watching the presentation. Lots of questions and comments start with “But?” Some are staring into space with slumped shoulders.
  • Meeting room 2 with a team that is talking fast and loud and in an enthusiastic tone of voice while they energetically fill the whiteboard with drawings and ideas.
  • Meeting room 3 full of people who are quiet and slow to respond to each other while they check their smartphones under the desk.

After checking, you find out that the people in the first room discuss a new project that won’t take off. They are discouraged and about to give up. They worry about their lack of progress.

In the second room, people are discussing a new project that suddenly spiked. After a slow start that required stamina, they are now catapulted into success. They are inundated with new customers and new opportunities. The energy in the room is palpable; it even feels hot. People interrupt each other, laugh, learn and venture out of their comfort zones. Apparently, because they joke a lot to lighten their embarrassment.

In the third room, the meeting is the weekly ritual. They go through the motions, ticking the boxes: business as usual is doing fine. Nothing new here. One person yawns.

Where Are You On The Curve?

Whitney Johnson’s new book Disrupt Yourself got me thinking about the developmental phases of people and organizations, as well as organizational culture because that’s my field.

Johnson shares this insightful S-curve derived from research on innovation. People, projects and organizations could be in one of three phases on this learning-innovation curve.

In the beginning, there are little results while you put in lots of effort. A comfort to know for all those entrepreneurs and learners out there! Persist, build your competence, keep your faith and you may be rewarded.

You might gain momentum and move to the phase of hyper-growth where you experience confidence and tremendous results based on small efforts. The project takes off - it is spiking, it is dynamic.

Then, things settle down and become business as usual. The market is saturated, and so are you. No more steep learning curves, no extreme challenges - just another day at the office. You may get bored or arrogant at the top of the curve.

For people, it’s time to jump onto a new learning curve to stay fresh and engaged. For organizations, it’s time to keep looking for innovations or they will be stuck at a plateau.


As Johnson says, the s-curve can help us deal with reality. I find it comforting to see the slow start because it can help avoid discouragement that makes me quit too soon. On the other hand, we must be realistic. Some projects and start-ups never spike. You have to know when to quit as well.

In the middle of the curve, you have to juggle too many opportunities and tasks - here’s the dilemma regarding what to outsource, delegate, or drop to stay sane.

At the top of the curve, you encounter the innovator’s dilemma. If you don’t do something new, something inside of you dies. If you do something new you take a scary risk, having to let go of the fact that you were so comfortably settled.

The same goes for organizations - and I encounter this often in my culture change work. Many established organizations are still nicely settled on their plateaus. They know they have to be agile, more responsive to change, innovative. But they are stuck. Their structures, procedures, and cultures are firmly rooted in hierarchy, efficiency, results.

Those are competing values to being flexible, innovative, learning, experimenting, trying, dissenting, debating, slacking to enhance creativity, and so on. Their structure and their culture do not support these behaviors. It feels awkward, even wrong.

Unsettle Your Team

The biggest challenge in organizational culture change is to unsettle again. For executives, this means practicing long-forgotten behaviors like debating, losing face, being open, experimenting, not knowing the answers, letting go of control, being flexible and vulnerable - as they once experienced in college or in their first jobs or start-ups.

Johnson says that companies don’t disrupt, but people do. That’s a big truth. Corporate innovation seems a contradiction when you equate corporate with the established organization I described above. To speed up, to learn, to become loud and enthusiastic and energetic, as observed in meeting room 2, we need courageous people. People who dare to disrupt themselves and others. People who dare to let go of shame when they make a mistake.

If you create a workplace culture where everything is open to discussion, authority and ideas may be challenged, and mistakes are almost bravery, then you may be on your way to innovation. This is what I entice executives to do when working on culture change. There is no innovation without personal disruption. There is no culture change without personal development, and modeling personal development must start with the executives. Dare you?

Things will change if the established executive team decides to get out of meeting room 3 and try to re-energize like the rising talents in room 2.

A start can be to take turns with the role of devil’s advocate in meetings, challenge some statements, and coax others into debate or dialogue. Do that and you'll find disruption has started! Dare you?

Where are you and your organization on the S-curve? What are you going to do about it?

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