Whitney Johnson’s Secrets to Disrupting Your Career

When you find something that works, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. But the most successful startups aren’t the ones that find a recipe for success and stick with it–they’re the ones that constantly aspire for more, iterating and innovating in powerful new directions that leverage their core capabilities to disrupt stale models.

According to Johnson, personal disruption is “the act of using a practice employed by companies—wherein a product deemed inferior by the market leader eventually upends the industry—and applying it to you as an individual.” Her concept of disruptive innovation is rooted in the S-curve (see image below), with three distinct parts: competence (gaining your footing), confidence (thriving), and mastery (comfort).

The S-curve of disruptive innovation

The S-curve of disruptive innovation


The S-curve of disruptive innovation

Disruption is Whitney Johnson’s bread and butter. As an Author, Speaker, Advisor, and one of the 50 Top Management Thinkers of the World, she knows what it takes to harness the power of disruptive innovation to make amazing things happen. In November, Johnson joined us for Intelligent.ly EMERGE, a one-day leadership workshop designed to help individual contributors become effective influencers, for a powerful keynote about investing in continuous innovation.

We caught up with Johnson to tap into her knowledge about how to stay fresh:

You’ve said that when things become easy and you’re not feeling challenged or learning new things, it’s time to jump to a new curve. Do you have advice on how to know WHAT to jump to?

Analyze how what you do well maps to what others want done by answering:

  1. Are there stakeholders whose needs are not being met? What are they?
  2. Are there a lot of people trying meet those needs (e.g. 50 people applying for a job), or has there ever been a job posting (e.g you’d create a job) for a need that isn’t being met?
  3. Does this need you want to meet leverage your distinctiveness (what you do remarkably, uniquely well)? As in, it’s so easy for you, you don’t value it because it’s as natural as breathing?

The whole point of disruption is to move up the y-axis of success over the x-axis of time. When you disrupt yourself you are making the conscious decision to move down the y-axis, on the premise that the slope of your next curve will be even steeper, leading to another period of rapid growth.

Jumping from secretary to investment banker to analyst to investor had to have been daunting. How did you channel fear to help you grow vs. letting it become a constraint?

It’s pretty easy to talk about this after the fact. So, what I’m about to say makes these moves sound much tidier than they were. That said––A constraint simply defined is something that you bump up against, and in bumping, you get information. Like a skateboarder. They learn quickly because they receive fast and useful feedback. Fear is typically characterized as a foe, but it’s also a friend. Follow your fear and you’ll know what matters to you. In this way, rather than a check on your progress, it becomes a tool of creating you.

Regarding pursuing market risks (vs. competitive risks) – is this possible to do inside an established company? How can individuals pioneer a new idea effectively?

Even inside of a large company there are ideas people haven’t had and projects people don’t want to take on. These are opportunities for taking on market risk. Think about Intuit’s Fasal. When they wanted to make a difference in India there were lots of routes Intuit could have taken. Instead they sent three engineers to rural India for three weeks and said figure something out.

One day during a torrential downpour that found themselves at a bus stop with local farmers. As they chatted they discovered the farmers didn’t have access to commodity prices. Having found a problem to solve, they could have now thrown a lot of money at it. But they didn’t. They just started manually texting price and buyer information, iterating their way to a solution. Notice how this process was so low-cost, so low-risk, so where -no-one -else-was-playing, the odds of it getting quashed, were practically zero.

Because Intuit encouraged its people to play where no one else was, which also included very few resources––until they knew they had something that worked––today there is a service known as Fasal, a sophisticated text-messaged based platform, helping farmers get the best price. Over 2 million users who enjoy more than 20% increase in their bottom line.

Boston has an “Innovation District,” and is increasingly becoming known as a leading city for innovation. Do you think the word “innovation” is becoming overused? What do you want people to understand about the meaning at its root?

In my experience, when someone uses the word innovation, they are signaling they want to try something new. Wanting to improve, to do better and be better, is always good. Always. Where I think we get tripped up is when you and I attach different meanings to this word.

My definition? Innovation is about moving from stuck to unstuck. There are lots of ways to do that. The frameworks of disruption are one. Which is why I wrote Disrupt Yourself. I wanted to convey that companies don’t disrupt, people do. Here’s how. In 7 steps. My hope is this: That I have made a strong enough case around the ‘how’ that we can move forward together on the ‘do’.

Ready to invest in developing innovative leaders inside your company? Enroll in the next Intelligent.ly EMERGE workshop.