Here at the Sandbox, we’re all about business transformation. Of course, we're not the only ones in that conversation. What no one seems to say, though, is how can business leaders, or anyone, actually learn to “do” transformation? How can we learn to transform? 

We say: You can’t transform anything, much less a business, until you have learned to transform yourself. 

In other words, you must Disrupt Yourself, which happens to be the title of Whitney Johnson's latest book. Johnson is a longtime friend of BIF — she’s been a Sandbox Podcast guest, and has been a storyteller at two previous BIF Collaborative Innovation Summits. She'll tell the story of her own successive self-disruptions at this year's Summit in September. 

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In Disrupt Yourself, Johnson extends Clay Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation to personal transformation. She beautifully weaves the threads of Christensen's theory into a fabric that covers self-disruption, both personal and professional, as well as it does business disruption. She’s well-qualified for the task, since she and Christensen have worked together, co-founding a company to invest in potentially disruptive companies. 

Johnson grounds Disrupt Yourself in the framework of the famous S curve that's often used to illustrate processes in which the relationship between cause (effort) and effect (results) is non-linear, and therefore unclear. Here’s how the S curve works in personal disruption:

  1. You enter the curve at the flat bottom. The process of learning new information, skills, and systems seems like it will never pay off.
  2. You reach competency, passing an inflection point after which you progress very quickly up the steep back of the curve
  3. At the top, the curve flattens again. You’ve gained mastery, but your growth plateaus. If you don’t hop off here, you risk falling off or being pushed off.

Rule One: Be Intentional

Of course, there is no Rule Two. You own your self-transformation. You must design ways to navigate and harness successive cycles of learning and mastery by moving from one S curve to another. Your design tools are seven variables Johnson has identified, that affect the speed at which businesses and individuals move along S curves. Each variable has its own possibilities to embrace and perils to dodge. 

1. Take the right risks

You take a risk every time you jump on a new S curve. Every time you enter a sector, an industry, a job. Every time you learn a set of skills or a new technology. How do you choose the risks most likely to pay off? Your odds of success are six times higher, says Johnson, if you take a market risk rather than a competitive risk. The difference: Competitive risk means you’re competing for an existing set of customers, while market risk means creating a new market. Go to work for a market-maker, become a market-maker within your field or within your company, or create a new market yourself. 

2. Play to your distinctive strengths

If you were a company, we would say that you need to create an adjacency, a Business Model Sandbox, where you can unbundle capabilities, combining and recombining them to create ways to deliver new value that meets unmet needs. So, create your own Sandbox.

  1. Identify your capabilities. What skills and talents have helped you survive thus far? On which do you regularly receive compliments? 
  2. Identify capabilities you need to acquire. Are there pay-to-play skills in the profession or industry you want to enter? How can you most easily and inexpensively acquire these skills? 

You’re looking for the sweet spot where unmet needs can uniquely be served by the mix of capabilities, talents, and skills you bring. If you can’t find that sweet spot, then take the path that has the potential to open the most doors for you.

3. Embrace constraints

You already have constraints, such as money, knowledge, and time. You should impose even more constraints on yourself. The reason? Constraints foster creativity and create focus. Constraints give you something to push against, and can turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones.

4. Battle entitlement

Along the path of transformation, you'll make big changes that will challenge what you think you know about your skills, you profession, and the world. You’ll need to shed your sense of entitlement about these. Don’t take it personally when people don’t share your basic assumptions, values, or point of view.  

5. Step down, back, or sideways, in order to move up

It seems counterintuitive to jump off a lucrative curve to one that’s promising but not yet lucrative, but sometimes the only way up is down. To clarify your choices here, ask yourself what you hope to learn, discover, or accomplish on the new curve. Or, what do you hope you'll avoid? Will this move keep you competitive, or keep you from being disrupted, along with your industry? After all, it’s better to jump than to be pushed. 

6. Give failure its due

On the path of self-transformation, failure is a when, not an if. You will fail, so learn how. One way is to reframe your approach. Instead of a success-or-failure approach, try taking an experimentation-and-discovery approach. You'll experiment, learn, adjust, and pivot, if necessary. And learn to know when it’s time to quit and move on. 

7. Take a discovery-driven approach

When you jump onto the bottom of a new curve, you can’t see the top of the curve from where you are. To manage up into an uncertain future, Johnson suggests taking an approach called "discovery-driven growth." A brief summary:

  • Start by listing your basic assumptions about the new S curve. We often don’t articulate our most basic assumptions, so surfacing them requires self-reflection. Try asking, “What has to be true for this to work?” For example, you may assume that moving up this curve will prove the existence of a yet-to-be-defined market, and that your family will successfully adjust to an international move.  
  • Once you list your basic assumptions, identify how to measure them. Quantify those that can be quantified, and understand what success looks like for those that can’t. As evidence comes in that proves or disproves your assumptions, you can redirect or move on, based on what you’ve learned. 

One more bit of advice: 

Disrupting yourself is scary, and it can be lonely. Find places and events where you can connect with other, like-minded self-disruptors and self-transformers. Of course, we recommend the BIF Summit, September 14-15, in Providence, RI. We'll be there, and so will Whitney Johnson.

Photo by Elena Brugnara via Flickr; all rights reserved.

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