Whitney Johnson is the author of the best-selling Build an "A" Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve and the critically-acclaimed Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work. In these books, she codifies her frameworks for developing high-growth individuals and organizations. The NCMM recently chatted with Johnson about personal and organizational disruption.

How can disruption become opportunity for both leaders and middle market companies

Johnson: The word disruption often has a negative connotation. Back in school, if you disrupted class, you’d get sent to the principal's office. Clayton Christianson, who wrote “The Innovator's Dilemma,” described a disruptive innovation as “a silly little thing that takes over the world,” like the automobile did to the horse and buggy, like the telephone did to the telegraph, like Uber and Lyft are disrupting taxis. In general, disruption is a very positive thing for consumers. This same “disruption framework” can be applied to people.

In terms of personal disruption, you start at the bottom of a [learning] ladder, you climb to the top and then you jump to the bottom of a new ladder, much like the children's game Chutes and Ladders. So basically you're the silly little thing and take over the world. You're the disruptor and the incumbent too because you're disrupting yourself. 


What happens if we choose to ignore disruption?

Johnson: When you're on a given S [learning] curve as an individual or in your business, it sometimes makes sense to stay the course. But once you get to the top of an S curve, whether as a company or as an individual, what looks like a plateau can quickly become a precipice you fall off. You ignore what’s going on around you at your own peril.

If you’re a middle market company, when you first started out, you went looking for what the opportunity was. Where are people playing or where are companies playing, where are they not playing? Where do we see the opportunity? At that point, you were thinking like the disruptor. But once you start to move up that S curve and have some success, you start to potentially move to the top of that S curve. Then you need to be asking questions like, “what could we be doing differently now? What might someone do who wants to disrupt us?” It can be very valuable as a middle market company to  continually hire people who are at the low end of their S curve of learning, people who are new to your organization, your industry, and capable of asking questions like “why do we do it like this?” 


Why is embracing market risk much better than embracing competitive risk?

Johnson: Competitive risk is where you know there's a big opportunity, you've scoped out the market, you have projections to prove it, and you have to figure out if you can compete and win. Market risk is where you don't know if there’s an opportunity, but if so, there's very little competition. We know from the theory of disruption, going back to “The Innovator's Dilemma,” that when you pursue a disruptive course, when you take on market risk, your odds of success are six times higher.

One of the reasons market risk is very difficult to accept, even though we know the odds of success are higher, is that it feels less certain. With competitive risk, there’s competition, a clear enemy. With market risk, it's wide open. You don't know what the opportunity is, or whether there is an opportunity. That feels less certain, yes, but it’s  actually less risky to take on market risk.


 How can middle market leaders and companies identify and leverage their “distinctive strengths?” 

Johnson: A distinctive strength is something you do well that people around you do not. I encourage leaders to figure out  what strengths you have that you’re blind to. Ask yourself “what exasperates me?” When you find yourself saying things like, “this is just common sense, why don’t people get it,” then this is one of your strengths. Also pay attention to the compliments that people give you. The next time you get a compliment, write it down, because this is also one of your strengths.

For middle market companies, it’s a similar questioning process. The market's actually giving you lots of feedback. About six months ago, one of my colleagues asked me, "who hires you?” and I started to answer, "people who are going through upheaval and change. They're getting disrupted, so they're trying to figure out how to disrupt themselves first." But when I actually looked at who was paying us, it was growth organizations, middle market companies that are growing fast and trying to make sure that their people and teams can keep up with how fast the organization is growing. With that information, we doubled down on our strengths.


What's the "right" way to view failure as as you self-disrupt?

Johnson: We think failure is awesome as long as it's our failure. But when other people fail, we don't like it. We all fail all the time, every day. Failure is not the problem, it's the shame we attach to failure. 

When we make a mistake, instead of it seeing it as an interesting data point, the shame grabs us and paralyzes us. It's shame that limits disruption, not failure. Getting past the shame requires some internal work to gain a sense of self, and where you want it to be. Once you can start extracting shame from the equation, then you'll be able to fail more and get better, faster. It's worth doing the work, but it's hard.


 What is “discovery-driven planning” and how can we use it to grow?

Johnson: I first learned about discovery-driven planning from Rita Gunther McGrath, who’s at Columbia University. She advocates for a process where you take a step forward, you gather feedback, you adapt, you say, "What do I need to learn on the next step, once you take that step, you say, "What did I learn? What do I need to do differently?" And then you move forward.

Of all successful new businesses, 70% end up with a strategy different than the one they started with. As a middle market business leader, if you end up somewhere different than you expected or it looks like you need to pivot, that’s normal. Take a step forward, gather feedback, adapt. We know the why of what we're trying to get done, but we're willing to discover our way tactically.


What else would you like to say about personal or organizational disruption?

Johnson: Disruption is actually pretty scary and lonely, because you're playing where no one else is. So when you're trying to take on market risk, when you're doing discovery-driven planning, when you're trying to rebound from your failures, when you're taking that step back, when you're embracing constraints, if you feel scared and lonely along the way, you're probably on the right path.


Whitney Johnson is CEO of WLJ Advisors and one of the 50 leading business thinkers in the world, according to Thinkers50. Johnson is a much-acclaimed expert on helping high-growth organizations develop high-growth individuals. Johnson is also an award-winning author, world-class keynote speaker, and an executive coach/advisor to multiple CEOs.