Constructive disruption - the act of productively challenging inherited wisdom or structure - supports innovation by opening up the space to replace what we have with what we might imagine.
“Innovation” feels both essential and meaningless right now. We all recognize the imperative to pursue it but how? Must we hire the innovation experts? At the ninth annual Business Innovation Factory, I had the privilege to join a remarkable set of storytellers in sharing our lives and work, surfacing in particular a few common traits for those of us in pursuit of innovation.
Constructive disruption - the act of productively challenging inherited wisdom or structure - supports innovation by opening up the space to replace what we have with what we might imagine. Myself and two fellow storytellers approached this quality from three very different vantage points.
Carmen Medina spent 32 years as a self-professed “heretic” at the Central Intelligence Agency, challenging group think in a very male, hierarchical setting with the highest stakes imaginable. When she left the CIA, she embraced social media’s culture of information sharing, which was eschewed by her former organization and which she sees as crucial to the work of rebels and innovators. Today, she heads up Rebels at Work, a site for constructive disrupters to share their stories and to learn from one another.
A first-generation college graduate and the son of immigrants, Paul LeBlanc is disrupting higher education as the president of Southern New Hampshire University, named by Fast Company as the 12th most innovative organization in the world. He credits his upward mobility to his college education, which enabled him to give his daughters "a dramatically different life than their grandparents, who left a farm in rural Canada.” With the vision of making a college education accessible and affordable for more people, Paul is turning higher education orthodoxy of “credit hours” on its head through College for America, which offers online courses to working adults eager to advance their skills and career prospects.
As for me, I’m a happy person, an optimist, and as Carmen Medina said, “optimism is the greatest form of rebellion.” My optimism about how the world can change for the better took me from community organizing in Capetown, South Africa, to the Rockefeller Fund as a grants manager, to non-profit consulting, and finally, to GOOD/Corps as a director of strategy and partnerships. My colleagues and I at GOOD/Corps are trying to disrupt the assumption that we have to separate making money and doing good. Inspired by the GOOD Community, we collaborate with companies and organizations to design campaigns like the Girl Scouts of the USA's To Get Her There and 100Kin10. We experiment with new ways to engage you guys in pursuit of complex solutions to layered social challenges.
I hope you’ll take a look at all three 15-minute talks. Here are four lessons I took away:
Don't just leave it to the 'experts' - claim your identity as a disrupter.
Personal happiness, business success, and human progress all depend on everyone, despite age or job title, fearlessly contributing our passions to the common good using new tools and technologies. This isn’t about being hyper-educated or having a grand theory, but about recognizing that there is a better way and having the courage to push against the tide.
To be a constructive disrupter, seek out your tribe.
Disrupters can’t achieve their goals alone. Being alone may be a sign you’re on the right track, but it can get lonely and unfun fast. Self-identifying is just the first step to finding fellow disrupters and learning from our shared failures, which should far outnumber our successes. Far from cautious distance from the unknown or unexpected, we have to seek out colleagues whose work seems far from our own - bridging, for instance, the lines between marketing and corporate social responsibility, fundraising and online community building, or technology and higher education.
The older the institution or the more ingrained the practice, the greater the opportunity to disrupt for the better.
For Carmen, it was the CIA and the idea of the organization itself. For Paul, it was the invention in the early 1900s of the credit hour as a solution to how to distribute pensions for faculty members, which morphed into the central organizing principle for unitizing knowledge - from faculty workload, to degree levels, to classroom space, to dispensing $153 billion in federal financial aid every year. For our work at GOOD/Corps, efforts like the Pepsi Refresh Project or Starbucks Create Jobs for USA challenged the idea that big business can’t lead on issues that matter.
Disruption should be fun.
If you’re motivated by changing the world, what could be more fun than to challenge a focus on inputs vs. outcomes in higher education and ensure the vast majority of students who don’t attend elite universities graduate with degrees that actually carry weight with employers? How about ensuring our intelligence agencies or other massive organizations don’t smother the best ideas and most creative thinkers? At GOOD/Corps we work on serious problems but dedicated partners, but we know we’re off track if we don’t at least enjoy one another while we’re doing it.
Take the leap - become, proclaim, promote, empower, or adopt a disrupter. You, your institution, and the world will be better for it.
Photo via Sarah Shreves