Social Innovation

How to create disruptive innovation

Holly Hickman
Writer, GE Look Ahead
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“Creativity,” Steve Jobs liked to quip, “is just connecting things.” By that, the famed innovator referred to the practice of creating new ideas based on links others have yet to intuit.

Perspectives abound on what methods can help companies connect the dots. Some, like GE CEO Jeff Immelt or Solomon Darwin, executive director of the Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation at UC Berkeley, have been praising the merits of open innovation. Others, like Harvard Kennedy School professor Ronald Heifetz point to the importance of focusing on adaptive strategies. A quick canvassing reveals that other best practices, including keeping a start-up mindset, capitalising on emerging trends and focusing on unmet customer needs or frustrations, are done in design thinking, for example.

In short, creating a disruptive innovation boils down to finding new and better ways to solve problems. But it also involves the will to take risks. “Our society has become, to a great extent, too risk-averse,” says Robert K. Weiss, vice chairman and president of XPRIZE. “If you are afraid to take risks, you’re never going to get those quantum breakthroughs,” he points out.

As the electricity, Internet or mobile revolutions suggest, disruptions are often brought about by new technologies. But while they help, new technologies are not always necessary to disrupt markets: Sometimes, spotting and capitalising on trends can be enough. Upon seeing the success of personal computers, for example, Apple decided to go granular, eventually creating niches that led to an industry of ever-more-personal, and smaller, devices. Today, ApplePay is riding the birth of yet another trend—digital wallets—one that further exploits the disruptive potential of mobile finance … and also happens to reinforce the “necessity” of owning an iPhone; and soon an Apple Watch, too.

The most powerful innovations, however, come when trends and technology are combined with the power of networks. Palo Alto-based healthcare company Theranos (an amalgam of the words “therapy” and “diagnosis”) is a good example.
Heralded for its abilities to perform dozens of diagnostic tests on only a few drops of blood and at a fraction of what independent labs and hospitals charge, Theranos has leveraged the networks of partners like national pharmacy giant Walgreens to ensure that its technology is available to the greatest number of customers. Created just 12 years ago, the company stands poised to shake a $73bn diagnostics industry.

Its CEO​ Elizabeth Holmes, who was only 19 when she dropped out of college to create the company, also exemplifies​ the often underappreciated ​ingredients of disruptive innovation: spunk​ and courage​. As Jobs used to say, “Those who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

What would you say are the key elements to creating disruptive technologies?

This post first appeared on GE LookAhead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Holly Hickman is a contributing writer for GE LookAhead.

Image: Devices produced by U.S. manufacturer of computer networking equipment Netgear are displayed on a web during the IFA Electronics show in Berlin September 4, 2014. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke.

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