Engineers: Be disruptive in thinking, innovation

To really move ahead of the pack in engineering, encourage disruptive thinking. A lot is gained by creating new markets; little is gained by promoting incremental improvements, noted Luke Williams, New York University (NYU) Stern School of Business, at the A3 Business Forum.

By Mark T. Hoske February 9, 2016

Disruptive thinking, changes, and innovation are required for large leaps. Incremental changes produce incremental results, explained Luke Williams, New York University (NYU) Stern School of Business, clinical associate professor of marketing, and executive director at the W.R. Berkley Innovation Lab, at the A3 Business Forum.

A3, the Association for Advancing Automation, is the umbrella organization for the AIA, Advancing Vision, ImagingMotion Control and Motor Association (MCMA), and the Robotic Industries Association (RIA). A3 holds an annual meeting, Feb. 3-5, this year, in Orlando, Fla.

Williams offered these additional pieces of advice about disruption. 

Mix it up

Williams, with more than 50 U.S. patents, promoted the need for disruption and discomfort. He noted the "self-similarity principle," which is the desire to surround people with others like themselves. A study put people together with directions on expanding their networks. Researchers tracked all conversations and discovered almost everyone migrated to others like themselves. Only the bartender expanded his social network.

All people have a vested interest in growth, so there’s a need to have a vested interest in innovation, but perspective is important.

If someone needs to sit, one chair is enough; there’s no need for two or three. More than one doesn’t offer much value for one person. The idea of a chair, the recipe for a chair, is valuable and can be highly innovative.

Innovation is never wasted because it’s a realm of increasing returns. Every idea is currency to purchase another idea. Develop more innovation capital than your competitors. Look at how many bold new recipes you started rather how many units are sold.

Avoiding the old ways

Never has there been a better time to try new things and to re-arrange things in your business. In times of uncertainty, companies often return to the old ways, which can be deadly.

The rate of change in the smartphone market is remarkable. Just a few years ago, there were three dominant global competitors: Nokia, Motorola, and Blackberry. Having a Blackberry now often prompts an explanation because Samsung and Apple smartphones own the market. The pace of disruptive change is accelerating in every industry. Every business is a technology business. Now disruptors are turning to traditionally slow changing industries.

Danger of being complacent

Many think: We’re doing great. We don’t need any more ideas. We have a roadmap and know where we’re going. But with those mindsets, incremental ideas often are the only ones getting through.

"Complacency" is the most dangerous word in business, he said. If incremental change is the only change, then you’re ripe for disruption. Blockbuster had an opportunity at Netflix, but laughed, and now Blockbuster is gone.

Some say they’re going to get better at spotting and reacting, Williams said, but it’s better to be the disrupter. Lead the disruption. Let go of the idea that you can succeed by reacting. Change is the trajectory. It’s provocation, not prediction, that’s most needed. Take the ingredients you have and look at them differently.

Williams showed a video of people’s amazed reactions when 207 people in the Grand Central Station great hall froze for a period of time.

"I can only imagine the stories that went home that evening. Go home with that excitement daily to share your new insight for the day. It’s not too much of a stretch to see everyone in this room doing the same kind of disruption," Williams said.

How? Stop or slow patterns of short-term thinking.

Question paradigms and best practices. Is this still the relationship we should have with our customers? Is this the right cost structure? Is this still the best way to increase revenue? Provoke different thinking and disruptive thinking. 

Disruptive thinking

Disruptive thinking is a process that needs to be treated as rigorously as deliberate discontinuity:

  1. Craft a disruptive hypothesis
  2. Define a disruptive market opportunity
  3. Generate several disruptive Ideas 
  4. Shape a disruptive solution
  5. Make a disruptive pitch.

Many organizations are about analyzing data they already have. They take new recipes and turn them into solutions. Instead, experiment with a new proposition. Create a pilot program. Convince others that the advantages of making the change are worth it. Disruption for disruption’s sake is just annoying. You have to deliver value and keep delivering ideas rather than just implement results of new thinking. Know that you cannot pursue every idea, but reward effort of new ideas separate from results. 

Surfacing the clichés

There’s a widespread belief that govern the way people think about and do business in a particular space. Another phrase is "best practices," which people often don’t feel enabled to change or improve.

One product cliché is that soda is not just sugared water. Soda is inexpensive, it tastes sweet, but it’s advertised as inspirational.

Another cliché is that socks are sold in pairs. Yes, we have two feet, but most people ignore what isn’t broken, and that provides opportunity.

Children today may never need to learn to drive a car. What will they do with all that extra time? Those under 20 may see a wrist watch as lame, because it’s a single function device. "In my defense, I mentioned that my watch shows the date, as well," Williams said.

Another video showed a one-year-old girl with a magazine, trying to expand images and features and turn the pages with a flick, like a tablet computer. The frustrated girl then pushes on her leg in an effort to confirm that her finger still works. To her, the magazine is a tablet computer that’s broken.

Most innovations in the next 10 years won’t be driven by what drove the last 80 years. 

Craft a disruptive hypothesis

A hypothesis is a reasonable prediction: If it doesn’t work, try again. To provoke deliberate discontinuity, you must make an unreasonable provocation. Allow yourself time to see if advantages reveal themselves. What can you invert?

One example is the model that works for soda: Red Bull tastes bad, is expensive, and yet it turned around the soda industry by creating an energy drink market.

What can you deny?

What do you need to be successful? How else can you deliver value? Zipcar is an example of how the more unconventional an idea is, the longer it takes for others to catch up.

What can you scale? How tall should a building be? How many of something do you need? Exaggerate the rules.

Cliché: socks are sold in pairs. One company, despite the number of three-legged people being very small, decided it would be better to sell socks in sets of three. The Littlemissmatched brand found that 8- to 12-year-old girls love stuff that doesn’t match. The company now has whole lines of mismatched clothes and $20 million in venture capital.

Creative thinking comes first. Some think data and research will lead to results. Be creative first, and then do the research.

Instinct for change

Cultivate a rebellious instinct for change. The potential for turning points are all around us. Enjoy the possibilities.

Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

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