The power of a disruptive innovation is in its ability to change our way of thinking without us even realising, to retrain us and to create a new mindset that frames all of our future expectations. Its seed, its kernel, is in solving a challenge; its outcome: to place the innovator head and shoulders above their competition, setting them as the leader, and the rest of their competitive market as the followers.
Ask any creator through history how they did it, and I’d guess that not one of them set themselves a task to create disruption; their starting point was simply to answer a question. So how do you get from the question to a solution that drives disruption? By breaking rules!
Great ideas are great because they flout convention and challenge orthodoxies. Most people assume it can’t be done and, when it is, are then caught in that middle ground of amazement and questioning - doesn't that go against that regulation, that law, that acceptable rule that all of society is expected to know about and follow?
Often the ideas that evolve into disruptive innovations are breathtaking in their simplicity. We recall the wine-fuelled conversation we have all had around the dinner table, those fantastic ideas that we never think are truly possible or that are amazing because they’re often so simple and wonder - ‘could we do something amazing too’?
The problem isn't in having the ideas. It's in our belief that we could take them and make them real. It’s getting past the belief that if it was that great someone would already have done it. I'm not suggesting that turning an idea into a living, breathing innovation isn't hard. But, most people aren’t prepared to start, let alone stay the course and navigate the terrain necessary to implement a great idea.
The results for those brave enough to walk the path, break the rules, to challenge the status quo are compelling. Not only do they become leaders in their industry, they create opportunities that enable other ideas to flourish and take flight.
No argument with any of the above? So why then do so few people move from dinner party conversation to workable outcome? Why do companies in the same industry follow each other, seeking more to emulate their competitors rather than walk their own path?
From our youngest selves we are taught that to get along, to get ahead, we must blend in, follow the rules. From societal expectations on behaviour, selecting and following education pathways to success, filling in forms to move from house to house or bank to bank (despite the big digital footprint we all create in these last two areas; more on this in another post!), most of us fall into the pattern of swimming between the lines and fulfilling the expectations of a process, irrespective of whether we agree with it or not. Sure, we may push the boundaries from time to time, but for the most part we comply and do what’s expected of us. (This is true as much in business as in life, and when we do encounter rule-benders we’re often outraged).
But why do we all automatically assume there is a set of rules to follow? From phrases like ‘best practice’ through to industries that impose compliance, we all interpret and follow guidelines without thinking about why the rule exists or challenging if it still applies. Okay, okay, I get that compliance is often about safety, or operating within the law, but let's face it, regulation is also about imposing control based on what you know and are comfortable with at that point in time. You only have to look at some of the more left-leaning countries’ outrage to Uber as a business model to see the truth of that.
People are naturally apprehensive about change. As a species we survived by assessing and managing risk, and we have evolved to fear the unknown. Breaking the rules invites risk, which can be a potentially uncomfortable bedfellow for the large majority of us. I get it. Ironically, success can be one of the biggest inhibitors to risk-taking, becoming an enemy of innovation. BUT... successful companies are at risk if they stand still, especially as the pace of change in the world around us becomes ever more rapid.
There are some interesting companies out there walking their own path and challenging the ‘rules’ of their industries. Here are a couple of examples of organisations creating alternative business models, driving competitive advantage and providing great learning opportunities for the rule followers to take heed.
Arguably the most successful fashion house on the planet, Zara broke the rules of the traditional retail business model and have, in the process, completely changed shoppers’ expectations. With twice-weekly releases of new items across approximately 2000 stores globally, Zara use data insight to better understand their consumers’ preferences and predict trends in short, non-repeatable cycles. See it in store and like it? Don't hesitate, because if you come back tomorrow it will be sold and there won't be more on the way.
Analysing designers’ collections, scouting feedback on what we're wearing in various countries and with an in-house design team of over 200 designers, Zara churn out over 10,000 pieces a year, with each piece taking approximately 30 days from inception to store. Shoppers are compelled to check in regularly as there are always new pieces on offer, and with limited production there is a sense of exclusivity for a bargain price. Consider that a traditional fashion house has two collections a year, approximately 2000 pieces for purchase, with a typical cycle of nine months from show to production. Whilst they’re mid-way through their cycle, Zara have already created and sold over 5,000 items and are reacting to real-time changes in the fashion cycle.
Zara stores are always heaving, and if anything, this model has taught us all to think and expect more from fashion houses. When you consider that the traditional department store is struggling to attract shoppers, and the luxury brand industry is reporting downturn, breaking fashion industry rules is paying off.
Apple, and Steve Jobs particularly, broke the rule about ensuring a company provided customers choice. From the first launch of the iPhone there has pretty much been only a single handset! Comparing that to Nokia who had 40+ handsets in the market at the peak of their domination, one might think that only having one or two would seriously limit the customer's options. Considering Apple have reportedly just sold their 500 millionth handset this year it doesn't appear to be having much of an adverse affect!
By making selection of the product simple and uniform, the iPhone has become one of the best-selling products in the telecommunications market without limiting our ability to individualise our product through customisation. Taking this model right back to the philosophy of Henry Ford, you could have your iPhone in any colour as long as it was black. Okay. And White.
With a Deloitte study indicating that 37% of the population want customised shoes, Shoes of Prey fills a very specific niche. With a set of core shoe styles, customers can customise every aspect of the look of the shoe, making Shoes of Prey one of the earlier examples of companies offering mass customisation.
Australian Jodie Fox, the founder, had never been able to find the style or colour of shoe she wanted, when she wanted it. Travelling through Asia she found shoe makers able to produce unique products that suited her tastes and wardrobe. When her girlfriends kept asking where she got her shoes, Shoes of Prey was born.
With over five million customised shoes created since 2009, $15million in investment, and a deal with Nordstrom for six in-store brand studios to enable customers to try, customise and order, this business model is here to stay. Challenging the need for a bricks and mortar store-front, and by providing a truly exceptional customer service approach that allows you to return any shoes you order and don't like for up to 365 days, risk for the consumer is non-existent. As someone who has used the service multiple times (and returned for a remake based on my error), why would you buy 'seasonal stock' when you can have your very own bespoke shoe!
Look to the great ideas around you and ask, ‘what rules are they breaking that have made the difference in advancing their business model, product or approach’? More importantly, what are the rules you may be following that, if you don’t start challenging, will break you?
Driving disruption is a journey, with many twists and turns on the path...getting to the ideas that help drive that disruption? A great place to start!
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