person standing in center of light, sparks
PHOTO: JD Weiher

As the online economy continues to affect existing business models, many companies are finding that the biggest hurdle to future success may well be doing things the way they always have in the past.

That shouldn’t come as a shock. Inertia is common in many organizations. As businesses grow, their operations become increasingly complex, with more customers, more employees and more suppliers. Often, processes and systems that supported a company well for many years simply will not scale successfully to accommodate the changes. As a result, a now-complex business may find itself using outdated processes and systems, which can result in myriad workarounds and, inevitably, a heightened degree of complexity and inefficiency.

Hail to the Disruptor-in-Chief

Recognizing the principle that if leaders don’t disrupt their own business someone else will, companies that find themselves in this position need a disruptor-in-chief. Whether the CEO or another member of the C-suite, this individual must be a leader who is willing to think differently, recognize the signs of inefficiency, challenge traditional methods and innovate to chart a course of long-term prosperity — all without doing too much to unsettle the company’s staff or its customers.

With that in mind, disruptors-in-chief would do well to start the disruption process by listening to their companies’ employees. Whether they serve customers, stock the warehouse or manage accounts receivable, employees are on the front lines of operational processes. Around the water cooler, people often complain about repetitive tasks and cumbersome processes. That discontent is the energy that a business needs to harness productively to break the status quo.

Successful disruptors need to listen to — and capture — that energy. They should consider all suggestions and, where appropriate, put those suggestions into action. Giving employees a voice on how the business runs will help not only by unlocking insights that can disrupt standard procedures, but also by increasing staff loyalty and making it easier for employees to deal with (and accept) the changes that will inevitably impact their day-to-day work.

Assess Complexity

Next, the disruptor needs to determine where in the complexity cycle their company sits. Missing the cues — adding systems on systems, solving technology problems with workarounds, patching process gaps by adding new unnecessary processes — can create a level of technical debt from which it is both difficult and expensive to escape.

Conversely, recognizing the signals and investing the time and resources necessary to simplify business systems can launch a company over the crest of the complexity slope and accelerate it into market-leading performance. To that end, the disruptor-in-chief should do the following:

  1. Document the objectives of the business and define what value the business delivers to its customers, and how it delivers that value. They should recognize that the company probably adopted its existing systems years ago when technology was less advanced and the business goals were different.
  2. Map all business processes through value streams and then identify the systems responsible for managing each process and determine how they integrate with each other.
  3. Rate how well existing systems help to achieve the current business goals — and then look at alternative options for those that fall into the lower quartile.
  4. Consider what emerging technologies might deliver greater long-term value for the business than merely consolidating existing in-house systems.

The best combination of systems for a business is one that simplifies work for employees, eliminates complexity, reduces risk and makes it easy for customers to buy the company’s products or services.

Increase Agility

Finally, the disruptor-in-chief must position the organization to be agile. As technology transforms longstanding industry models, and as new products and services compete for market share, business success will be tied increasingly to agility — the ability to respond rapidly to change. A willingness to disrupt the status quo will ensure that responses are timely and effective. Reducing complexity, removing bottlenecks and automating manual processes will result in improved business efficiency. The long-term benefit, however, will come from enlisting employees in the process of change, an investment that lays the foundation for a culture of continual improvement and innovation.

Laying this foundation sets the stage for a business to disrupt rather than be disrupted, giving it the key to success in the 21st century economy. From there, the disruptor in chief and the company as a whole are in a better position to identify the gaps in the marketplace that competitors either fail to see or have become too complacent to notice.

Of course, it is one thing to see these gaps and quite another to transform the market with a game-changing concept. Being a disruptor in today’s evolving world means taking calculated risks. Disruptors-in-chief need to experiment often, recognizing that even small experiments can turn into massively disruptive ideas. Similarly, disruptors need to study why others have failed. Being first to market doesn’t necessarily mean being the best. A great deal of advantage goes to those who can execute when the market is ready.

Look for the Next Big Disruption

On the flip side, even the most innovative businesses have to anticipate when the disruption they introduced will reach a saturation point, and they should begin shedding assets before they become liabilities. That is why it is critically important not to devote all of the company’s resources to a single disruptive product or service. Instead, the disruptor-in-chief needs to anticipate threats, recognize when a once-disruptive innovation is now slowing the company down, and be willing to cut the cord. Rather than continuing to pour profits back into that initial innovation, use them instead to develop the next big disruption.