The art of delicate disruption. Why you don’t need to put people on Mars to be an innovator.
When we think of innovation, we naturally think of headline-grabbers like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and co.
Whether it’s building colonies on Mars or inadvertently disrupting democracy, these innovation celebrities get a disproportionate amount of the limelight.
Sadly, this skews the perception of how meaningful innovation actually works.
Because disruption tends to happen in a much more subtle, nuanced and intelligent way than people think.
It’s rarely a result of a mad idea from a lone maverick and nearly always the result of thousands of micro decisions that have had a compounding effect.
Unfortunately, we meet tonnes of would-be entrepreneurs that obsess about their USP and focus so hard on being the next big thing that they quickly lose sight of the customers and the work in front of them.
Going out to disrupt is like trying to answer the wrong question
While Jeff Bezos might’ve known he wanted Amazon to be an ‘everything store’ in the early days, it was focusing on the actual nuts and bolts of selling books that got him where he is today.
Fun case in point is the lichen loophole.
This was an ordering hack Bezos discovered to get round the ten book minimum of wholesalers. He’d order the one book he wanted and nine of an obscure lichen textbook which would likely be out of stock, keeping Amazon from bankruptcy.
If you’d asked Bezos at the time whether he was deliberately disrupting bookselling, he’d probably have said ‘no’.
Disruption can - and should - be a delicate art
As Steve Johnson proves in his book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation”, the major innovations of the past, from the pencil to the printing press to the battery, were all born out of the ‘slow hunch’ rather than a disruptive idea.
History has shown us that it’s the unsung heroes - those people who are just heads down following their instincts and quietly trying to do things better - that will eventually be seen as disruptors.
You don’t have to put people on Mars to have an impact on the world.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
You simply have to attempt to build a slightly slicker, faster wheel.
Which is precisely how Sir Dave Brailsford’s ‘marginal gains’ theory transformed British cycling, turning our team from a laughing stock into Tour de France winners five out of the past six years.
He showed how incremental improvements across many areas - from removing all dust in the mechanics truck to having riders bring their own pillows on tour - can lead to revolutionary cumulative gains.
Meaningful disruptive innovation works in exactly the same way.
Focus on the work that’s in front of you and you’ll find that the little tweaks, applied consistently, become a disruptive force more powerful than you could ever have anticipated.
It’s great to think big, but greatness comes from acting small.