The Fear of Disruptive Innovation

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To succeed, business decision makers need to be open to new ideas while at the same time appreciating that standard processes are standard for a reason: they work. It’s a fine balance, and understanding when to look and when to leap can be the difference between growth and stagnation.

In my ”Death of the Document” article, I talked a bit about accounting software and the way it’s evolved from the clunky spreadsheets imitating the old written ledgers to the clever SaaS software that lets users just put in their data and get out what they need. I argued that it’s time for authoring software to evolve in the same way — that there’s no reason producing a document shouldn’t be just as easy as producing a set of accounts. It’s a new way of looking at authoring software.

But with new ways of looking at things, you inevitably get resistance.

Say you’re in business, and you have a problem you need to solve. What do you do? You get four people to come into your office and pitch you their ideas for how they can solve your problem. Three of them say they’re going to solve your problem one way, offering different flavors of exactly the same solution. The fourth says he’ll solve your problem a different way, with a completely unique, novel approach that looks at the underlying issues from a completely new perspective.

It’s pretty natural to want to choose one of the three. People fear the unknown; and when the boss looks back if something goes wrong, he or she isn’t going to question why you went with the safe option and not the risky one. You did it because it was safe, and safe is meant to be good. After all, it took more than a decade for the closed-innovation phrase “no one ever got fired for buying Microsoft” to finally die out.

Of course, none of this is to say that if people come to you with a crazy idea that they say will set your business apart from your competition, you should start writing out a check on the spot. Some ideas are unsuitable for certain businesses, some are unsuitable for certain times or locations, and — let’s be honest — some are just unsuitable.

So how can you make decisions when the choice is a leap? I was walking past a café the other day and I saw a sign that said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It made me think about innovation and how businesses can improve the odds when it comes to implementing new ideas. I realized imagination isn’t more important than knowledge, and neither is knowledge more important than imagination. Like a gun and a bullet, imagination and knowledge are interdependent — extremely powerful when used together, but entirely useless on their own.

When someone comes to you with a radical idea, you need to listen to it objectively, without dismissing it out of hand because it sways too far from the norm, but also without getting so caught up in the potential that you forget the practicalities. Then you need to think about it, applying your knowledge of the market and of your business. It sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how many people consult with their hearts and their guts, but not with their heads.

If necessary, ask the person to explain the benefits again, and confront him or her with any concerns. The individual who truly has a great product idea will love it — it’s like asking a bodybuilder to pump his guns.

It all sounds like a lot of work, but it’s the difference between a great company and one that just gets by. And when you hit on the innovation that’s not only exciting and fresh, but that it also makes sense when you stop and think about it, you’ll know you’re onto a winner.

Paul Trotter is the founder and CEO of Author-it Software Corporation and the architect of the Author-it product, an Enterprise Authoring Platform (EAP). Author-it was born out of the frustrations that Paul experienced producing documentation in the Telecommunications industry. Author-it is a product built from the ground up around principles such as topic based writing, single sourcing and separating content from format. Over a decade and five major releases later, these principles remain true of Author-it today and are the basis of the success of the company. Paul is a popular speaker at events all over the world on topics ranging from technical writing and help authoring to content management and localization.


By Iain Acton

Hi Paul

It was great to read your article as I have recently used Einstein’s quote “Imagination is more important than knowledge” on a PowerPoint slide in a Disruptive Thinking Workshop in Germany. It was on day two and we were into “idea designing” using our disruptive pathways tool. One of the participants challenged Einstein perspective much in the same way you have. So stumbling across your article on twitter I did some more research and found a paper written by Dr Kathleen Taylor –

The paper quotes Einstein in more context
“Both. I sometimes feel I am right, but do not know it. When two expeditions of
scientists went to test my theory I was convinced they would confirm my theory. I
wasn’t surprised when the results confirmed my intuition, but I would have been
surprised had I been wrong. I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination,
which I think is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination
encircles the world.”

My understanding of her conclusion is “it depends” on what kind of K/I ratio the context, culture and challenge require of us. Are we required to leverage more knowledge than imagination or vice versa? Or do we leverage both equally?

Anyway I will keep an eye on your future posts
Best Regards
Iain Acton
Innovation Consultant and Designer
I am currently developing & testing disruptive thinking tools and programmes

By Paul Trotter

Hi Ian,

Thanks for your post. This is always a very delicate balance, but I believe there is another very important factor. Timing. So often very innovative products are created well before their time and before people are ready for them.

Steve Jobs said “People don’t know what they want until you show them” but sometimes that is not enough. If the status quo is too strong you can have the most innovative product ever and still fail.

This has always been an issue at Author-it. We have always been very innovative and ahead of our time, but it is only now after almost 12 years that our technology is starting to become accepted and desired.

People often ask me who our competitors are, my response “A combination of MS Word and apathy”. People need to be ready to accept innovation.


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