Do Disruptive Innovators Lack Social Skills?

Not to keep you guessing for too long here, the answer is “yes”, if recent research into the invasive mosquitofish is anything to go by.  A paper by Julien Cote et al. suggests that dispersers – those individuals that leave their group to set up home elsewhere – tend to have a different personality type than the average from a source population.  In particular, it is the least socially tolerant individuals that are most likely to disperse from high density populations, and it would seem that they may also to do this cyclically.  In other words, asocial individuals are more likely than the average to leave home and colonize new habitats, but if/when those new colonies become too dense they’ll up and leave those too.  If this is true it would help explain the propagation wave that typifies invasion spread.

It turns out that other studies on common lizards and on humans report similar findings; “that asocial individuals are more likely to disperse, especially when population density is high”.

So what does this have to do with disruptive innovation?  As is probably clear by now, I view invasive species as models of disruptive innovation in nature and believe that we can apply the characteristics and behaviours of invasive species to our own efforts to innovate in business.  Dispersal in this sense is not, therefore, literally about a business invasion of another geographic region, although that is often vital to growth, but more generally about a mindset that looks for opportunities outside the heavily contested norms of any given corporation or industry. I have already discussed in a previous post, albeit briefly, the advantages of thinking or acting like an outsider.  Here I am suggesting that there may be a personality type which may be more likely to think or act that way “naturally”.

Within the corporate world, however, this personality type is often explicitly weeded out by the recruiting process under the label of “not a team player”.  And for the most part this probably makes sense since at least 90% of the energies of an organization should be focused on the efficient operation of its core function.  But that still leaves a small percentage that should be focused on what comes next. And the two jobs are almost completely different. As explained by O’Reilly and Tushman in their paper “The Ambidextrous Organization”, they require very different strategies, structures, processes, competencies and cultures from one another.

I would go further and suggest that at least some the people within an organization who are tasked with disruptive or transformative innovation should have different skill sets and different personalities too.  But as the research itself shows, these people tend to flourish in smaller, less dense populations, so it makes sense to follow another of the invasion theory prescriptions which is to act small.

Which means that if you have the responsibility of building a disruptive innovation capability within an established organization, resist the temptation to build big to signify the importance of your mission.  Instead, build as small a team as you can. Even with executive-level support for innovation, other units within your company will view your work as a waste of time, money and resources, and as an irritating distraction from the day to day business priorities.  Being small achieves four important objectives in the early days: i) it will make your activities more inconspicuous and therefore less likely to attract the corporate antibodies; ii) it will make you need less support and fewer resources and therefore allow you to survive longer on whatever you’re given;  iii) it will make you create less infrastructure and therefore give you greater adaptability; and iv) it will make it easier for you to align your efforts around a single vision and goal and around a small number of cohesive ideas.

And don’t forget to hire at least one “disperser”.  They may not fit in very well. But that’s the whole point.