Positioning a Team for Innovation and Disruption

June 29, 2018

Promoting innovation

What is the fundamental unit of disruption in an organization? It is the individual, says Whitney Johnson, a C-suite advisor and an expert on innovation and disruption, in an interview with AMA Edgewise. She points out that it’s people—not companies—that cause disruption. This observation can help managers as they build teams and promote innovation.

In her former role as co-founder of the Disruptive Innovation Fund, Johnson saw that companies pursuing a disruptive course had higher odds of success. She created a framework for personal disruption that people can apply to themselves and to team-building efforts. With this process, an individual starts at the bottom of the ladder, climbs to the top, then jumps to the bottom of the next ladder. Unlike the disruption of products, the “incumbent” you are disrupting is yourself.

“If you want your people to disrupt, you’ve got to allow, encourage, require them to disrupt themselves,” said Johnson, whose latest book is Build an A-Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).

Optimizing teams to innovate

Johnson shares these insights on the AMA podcast:

Use the S-curve for team building. Your team is a collection of the members’ learning curves, says Johnson. So think about where they fall on an S-curve: 15% should be at the low end of the curve, where they are inexperienced but ask questions that lead to strategic insights; 70% should be in the middle, where they have greater knowledge and contribute to innovation when challenged; and 15% should be at the high end, where they are masters and anchor the others. However, if they stay at the higher end too long, she says, they can become bored and fail to innovate.

Focus on learning. Managers can use a carrot-and-stick approach to gain buy-in to this cultural shift and encourage innovation, says Johnson. For example, the stick may be the fear that we’ll lose high potentials and be outdone by competitors. The carrot is the opportunity for individuals to learn.

“When you make learning possible, your people are engaged. And when they’re engaged, they’re happy. And when they’re happy, they’re productive,” she said. Productive people like going to work and like working for the leader—a fact they will share with others. As a result, you become a talent magnet.

Hire for potential, not proficiency. To find people who want to prove themselves, you may need to look for talent in places where others are not, Johnson notes. Good prospects may include internal candidates who have skills you need but are being overlooked, boomerangers who have left the company and want to return, on-rampers who are returning from caring for children or parents, and self-taught people.

“When you are willing to buy low—hire for potential—and sell high, which means eventually they get to the top of the curve, you’re really able to pursue this disruptive strategy and build a very powerful A-team,” she said.

Listen to the full podcast with Whitney Johnson.

For information on a variety of topics, visit the AMA Edgewise library.

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About The Author

American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.

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