How to innovate like a disruptor

Four ways to create an environment that drives a need for change and fosters a culture of innovation

We all know we must innovate to survive. Some businesses have seemingly mastered the art of innovation—they have the ability to break down walls, build products, pivot focus at lightning speed, and disrupt entire industries. But for many, innovation is a complex challenge. Process, people, and regulations get in the way.

As a global business leader, how can you encourage your team to innovate like a disruptor?

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. I grew up in South Africa, where, for me, scarcity was a way of life. We had to make the most of the little we had. We naturally innovated without ever calling it that.

Most global enterprises don’t suffer from scarcity—even if they’re fending off disruptors, they still have vast capital and resources. It’s no wonder they’re unable to innovate. The truth is, they haven’t created a compelling need to do anything differently. However, I’ve found that there are a few ways to create an environment that drives a need for change and fosters a culture of innovation.

Change the negatives to positives

Scarcity. Scrappy. Failure. These words tend to have negative connotations. But each is positive in the context of innovation.

When people hear the word scarcity, they think of being deprived of the resources they need to be successful. However, startups know that operating with scarcity makes you think creatively—which is exciting and invigorating and can infuse teams with a strong sense of purpose.

Scrappy is another undervalued term; you can be scrappy without being crappy. Innovation requires velocity—speed, agility, and the ability to pivot quickly—and scrappiness facilitates that. Being “scrappy” means you’re able to get the job done with few resources and save time while you’re at it.

Every process that a company puts in place is meant to prevent failure—and when all systems are fail-safe, there’s never room to get creative and push the boundaries. Leaders need to reverse-engineer that and build safe-fail environments where employees are empowered to test a hypothesis, analyze the results, and experiment more. When failing is thought about as “accelerating learning,” that’s when innovation happens.

Manage like a venture capitalist

Every leader needs to operate like a venture capitalist. VCs tend to be comfortable with risk—they know that when they invest in startups, those companies will constantly be evolving. VCs let them do what they need to do because they believe their learnings will eventually help them succeed. If all business leaders were to embrace that same approach, they’d give their teams the freedom they need to innovate.

Throughout my career, I have taken that approach and seen incredible returns. One example is when I was CIO of Alaska Airlines. Flight benefits are one of the top perks for airline employees. Yet there was no easy way for employees to book their travel. To solve that, I created a team of self-motivated employees and gave them a constrained budget and complete freedom to operate like a startup. I assigned a leader and allowed him to behave like the CEO of the startup. The team very quickly created prototypes, set up user-experience labs, partnered with local companies, and ran demos at team events. Along the way, they solved political, budgeting, technical, and personnel challenges. Eventually, their hard work resulted in a working mobile app that’s known as Hopper and has a web interface and a dedicated team.

Perhaps most importantly, Hopper’s success established a stronger culture of innovation, in which employees are empowered to develop solutions to improve customer and employee experiences.

Create physical spaces that drive innovation

Innovation isn’t just a mindset or a process; the physical spaces in which teams operate also play a role. People tend to adapt their behavior to match their environment. For example, if I took someone to a house of worship, a concert, and a library, that person would likely behave differently in each venue. Each space inspires a different range of feelings, emotions, thought processes, and behavior patterns from the people inhabiting them.

When we talk about innovation and startups, the phrase that’s always used is “three guys in a garage.” Some of the world’s most successful startups famously began in garages—Amazon and Apple, to name a couple. Here’s why: The garage is a safe environment. It’s informal, cozy, and private; it’s part of someone’s home. It’s flexible—when your garage is your office, you can set your own hours. You can go outside, get up, and move to other rooms. You’re free to work in the style that best suits you. This freedom allows people to think creatively without fear of judgment.

When you impose time and space boundaries on people, they can’t be their creative selves. If Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs had been forced to work in drab, gray cubicles, I bet that their innovation levels would not have been the same. That’s not to say that teams should actually work in garages. But remove time and space constraints and give people environments where they feel free to think and create without inhibitions.

Build diverse teams

Diversity is, perhaps, the most necessary ingredient for innovation.

We are the sum of our life’s experiences. Our cultures, genders, religions, sexual orientations, places of origin, languages, upbringings, and education all influence the perspectives we bring to an issue.

The same types of people will explore only one path. We must explore many to find success.

When it comes down to it, innovation is nothing more than problem-solving. By giving your teams the right conditions in which to approach challenges, they’ll come up with creative solutions you may never have thought possible.

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