7 Habits of Inspiring Tech Leaders: (4) Agent of Disruption

The best tech leaders are Agents of Disruption.  They view the existing ecosystem as something with a sunk cost and are willing to disrupt the current state in order to achieve a bigger gain.  There are two types of change that can be implemented in a business.  The first is iterative, simply building on something that already exists in order to make it better.  This is a very appropriate and understandable approach to improvement that is appropriate for many, if not most circumstances.  The second is disruptive, which attempts to start over in order to address a problem in a different way, often requiring a “leap of faith” to achieve successfully.  A disruptive change would be one which approaches a problem with a different architectural model which might at first look simpler, less feature rich, or even compete with an existing approach.  The best tech leaders are willing to step forward with something that may not be easy or popular, but it is the right change, right now.

The leader who is an Agent of Disruption is a student of innovation.  They are willing to challenge the status quo and change a model that isn’t working, or even one that is.  Many know that the leaders of Blockbuster Video had the opportunity to acquire Netflix before it was big.  The reason they didn’t is because their current model was working.  People were renting videos and they felt like a simple and feature weak startup like Netflix could never compete.  Why would you want to wait for videos than get them when you wanted them?  What Blockbuster didn’t understand was that the simpler model changed the preferred path to consuming content.  Further, Netflix not only disrupted Blockbuster, they even disrupted themselves when they later moved away from rental video content and instead became a purveyor of content, not just a vehicle to someone else’s.  The best leaders take the risk to disrupt their current model, knowing they can realize immense gains as a result.

Diagram 1 (Current Product, Many Users Not Served… Feature Iteration Creates Little User Growth)

You can see in the diagram the existing strategy is to continue to iterate on features, which leads to little user growth and does not serve the large unserved population. The current product continues to serve those that like it and investment continues to retain them. However, the current strategy is ineffective at growing the user base or revenue appreciatively.

Diagram 2 (Disruptive Strategy, Starts Smaller with LESS Features, Grows with NEW Feature Set, More Users)

In the diagram the new product enters the market with far fewer features than the existing product, though those features are different and appeal to the unserved user base. The rapid growth is fueled by a moderate iteration of features that appropriately fit the new user scenario, often pulling users away from the existing product. This might even pause revenue growth temporarily, but eventually lead to exponential user growth. The new product may never have more features than the original, but those features will fit the market better. This strategy is called Disruptive Innovation and requires a choice to make a bold investment.

In the technology domain Agents of Disruption can affect Disruptive Innovation both below the line (in infrastructure/workplace technologies) as well as above the line (by driving change in the business).  The big changes in either domain will take courage, as there will always be political, technical, cost, and timeline barriers to defeat. 

Here are examples of disruption happening in the technology space:

  • Disruptor: Cloud Computing, Disruptee: Legacy Computing
  • Disruptor: Commodity Devices, Disruptee: Highly Specialized Personal Computing
  • Disruptor: Cloud-Based Device Management: On-Premise/VPN based Device Management
  • Disruptor: Microsoft Teams, Disruptee: Legacy IP-PBX (which disrupted the traditional PBX)
  • Disruptor: DevOps, Disruptee: Traditional Operations Models
  • Disruptor: Low/Code, No/Code, Disruptee: Centralized High-Skill Dev Teams
  • Disruptor: Data Science, Disruptee: Traditional Vertical Platforms
  • Disruptor: Mobile Device App Model, Disruptee: Highly Specialized App Deployment

In these examples the disruptor likely entered the market with an initial set of features which was considered insufficient to match the incumbent in the market.  For example, Cloud computing entered the market with a significantly smaller number of features and capabilities, but its speed to market caused MANY application teams to use it even very early in its lifecycle.  As cloud computing has evolved its approach to delivering computing has positioned as completely different than the legacy model and has made the original scenario now feel archaic.  Initially, you’d hear the VMWare zealots talking about how the “private cloud” was more capable.  Fast forward 5 years and no business leader would suggest leveraging on-premise computing unless it was for truly edge/hybrid scenarios. The disruption brought to the market has now changed the feature requirements… instead of virtual machines, we’re talking serverless and platform-based scale.

The best tech leaders understand the disruption coming and position their organization to leverage it early and effectively, training their teams to take advantage of the advancements while correctly managing risk. They embrace disruption, understand there will be headwinds, and persist anyway.

What is your disruptive strategy? How can you be a disruptive leader? The challenge is to be the leader your organization needs now to become the future version of itself it has the potential to be.

Nathan Lasnoski

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