50th St. Gallen Symposium "Freedom Revisited": 7–8 May 2020


Vulnerability, Courage and Disruption.

As I process various literature on disruption and what it takes to disrupt something – anything, be it entrenched political structures, societal norms, governments, industries, technology, habits and ultimately individuals – I cannot help but connect the emotional processes of disruptors with vulnerability. Brene Brown, one of my favourite authors of all time, has worked on the topics of vulnerability and shame for over a decade. I believe the outcomes of her research are a gift to those who aspire to be disruptors.

Among the many types of innovation that experts have studied and acknowledged, disruptive innovation is truly unusual and special. Disruptive innovation may come from new technology that targets those who have been abandoned by existing market players – abandoned by having delivered above the requirements of the masses. It may also come from market creators. These are the new entrants who reel in those who were non-consumers before. They target and attack non-existent markets and create something genuinely new.

The greatest benefit of new-market disruption is that it contributes to real growth and lifts the economy and society with it. These innovations change the rules of the game. This is easier said than done, that is why this type of innovation deserves the title disruptive.

To achieve disruptive innovation, those who spearhead these innovations have to be fundamentally different from those who look at disruption as a destroyer of status quo. Disruptive innovators tend to look at the world around them through a different lens compared those who carefully steer well-established incumbents in the markets, society or politics.

The difficulty with disruption is that it is a fairly unforeseeable and unpredictable process; it can be fostered, but neither enslaved nor commanded. To make a new market, to make customers, one cannot rely on existing data on one’s industry. Foreseeing the output of one’s strategy is not a privilege enjoyed by disruptors. As Professor Clayton Christensen wrote in The Innovator’s Dilemma, “Amid all the uncertainty surrounding disruptive technologies, managers can always count on one anchor: "Experts’ forecasts will always be wrong. It is simply impossible to predict with any useful degree of precision how disruptive products will be used or how large their markets will be.” While he was referring to tangible goods and technology markets in these lines. I am confident it holds true for any disruptive scheme that aims to bring big change.

To steer in darkness means one requires immense courage and faith in one’s action. One must steadfastly believe that one is heading in the right direction; without this belief, a serious attempt at disruption cannot be made.

Disruption is nothing but change and innovation at its best. It cannot be done without risking big failure; and to risk big failure is to be vulnerable. After all, Brene Brown did say, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” These words echo endlessly in my ears when I think of what disruptors must be feeling when they navigate the dark road to disruption. Disruptors are a special kind who deal with themselves and their own emotions very differently from the ordinary lot. They tend to have a deep sense of self-worth and belonging. They also have an unwavering belief in their vision and are comfortable in exerting effort without any assurance of a positive outcome.

It is easy to pass judgment on the failures and tribulations of those to dared to disrupt, but it is harder to put oneself in their shoes. Brene Brown sums up their emotional state in these words, “Being vulnerable, being real, being open is scary; it feels dangerous and it feels unsafe…”

Disrupting something involves creating something unique, the road to this is neither straight nor smooth; it is rough and thorny. It will bruise and pierce those who tread down this path, but what awaits them is success and satisfaction like never before!

It is easy to pass judgment on the failures and tribulations of those to dared to disrupt, but it is harder to put oneself in their shoes.