Personal Disruption: My Interview with Whitney Johnson
By Adedoyin Adebayo
We haven’t met Whitney Johnson in person but we have been her follower at Insel Consulting since her ground breaking article ‘Disrupt Yourself’ appeared in June-July 2012 edition of Harvard Business Review. This particular article had a profound influence on a quite number of us at the firm. In order to learn more about personal disruption, the individual version of disruptive innovation in business, our Senior Consultant had the privilege of interviewing Whitney Johnson. She is the Author of the critically-acclaimed Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work. Ms. Johnson is a consultant and thought leader on disruption and innovation. She is a leading thinker on driving innovation via personal disruption, a regular contributor for Harvard Business Review and LinkedIn. Whitney also speaks and consults with Fortune 100 Companies. Whitney Johnson was recognized in 2015 by Thinkers50, as one of the world’s leading management thinkers .
Insel Consulting: Everybody is talking about “disruptive innovation”—the way entrepreneurs hit on a radical business idea that transforms entire industries. What are the principles behind personal disruption and how can one make use of these principles to advance one’s career?
Whitney: Disruptive innovation occurs when an entrepreneurial idea emerges, often considered a silly, little thing, either from a new or established business that eventually upends an industry. For example, Toyota disrupted GM, Netflix upended Blockbuster, Uber is toppling Yellow Cabs.
Personal disruption mirrors this process at the individual level; it is the upending of one’s own career through a transformative move to a position, a new company, or industry, or perhaps to starting a new business, by stepping back to try something new. Personal disruption gives you better control of your career paths in an uncertain and rapidly changing business and job climate. I advocate making these changes by playing to personal strengths and using them to fill employment or market niches that others overlook. Disrupting yourself requires a willingness to work within the constraints of what are frequently limited resources, whether too little time, money or expertise. It also involves battling the entitlement that comes with success, accepting some failure as inevitable and even useful, and being willing to learn and discover from the process, rather than seeing a guaranteed result the start.
Insel Consulting: In your book – Disrupt Yourself, you talked about the S-curve — the necessary pivots in our own career path. Kindly throw more light on this.
Whitney: The S-curve model was developed several decades ago as a measure of how, why, and at what rate new ideas and products will spread through cultures. At the low end of the S, there is slow initial progress until a tipping point of momentum is reached. Then hyper-growth follows (sleek, steep back of the curve), until a plateau (top of the S) is reached and growth slows again.
At the individual level, this means embracing an opportunity at the low end of a curve, where there is a lot of room for new learning and skill development, but an early period of difficulty associated with not having all the skills or resources for the position to be comfortable. If we can embrace that early phase of high constraint and persevere through it—and it’s not all painful; science tells us that our brains thrive when we are learning new things—then comes the exciting stage of hyper-growth, when we’ve achieved competency in our endeavor and can really be a star in our role. Ultimately, though, we reach a point of boredom, stagnation, when the challenge is gone and we have reached the plateau at the top of the curve. Then it is time to let go of the comfortable, and jump to a new curve. If it is scary and lonely you are on the right path.
Insel Consulting: How relevant is the S-curve to one’s career most especially the S-curve model? How can one identify where he/she is on the S-curve?
Whitney: The S-curve is very relevant to the way we think about our careers. A big part of the work we do is about earning the living we need, and/or that our families need. But that isn’t the only thing to think about. Some of it should be about the experience we have while at work, the things we learn, the skills we acquire, the opportunity we have to contribute to something worthwhile, while reaching our own potential. Thinking of career in terms of the S-curve helps us understand some of the challenge we encounter when we start something new, and also understand why we ultimately become dissatisfied with something that was once exciting and fulfilling. If we envision our careers as a series of S-curves, rather than a single linear progression, we have a more accurate view of how our work life is likely to go, and we can become the author of our own disruptions, rather than always being disrupted by external forces beyond our control.
We have developed a series of questions as a diagnostic tool to help individuals identify where they might be on their current S-curve. I invite you to give it a try here.
Insel Consulting: Personal disruption is steadily gaining ground around here, yet, the beautiful concept, to a very large extent, is Greek in this environment: could you tell me a bit about your own career path and how it led you to your own personal disruption? Would you advise an individual most especially Gen -Y in Africa to disrupt himself/herself employing your tested and trusted personal disruption templates?
Whitney : My education was in music—piano. When I moved to New York City with my husband—he was a graduate student at Columbia University in microbiology—I knew it would take years for him to complete his PhD and post-doctoral research. I needed something more practical than music to provide a living for us while he finished his education. I got a secretarial position on Wall Street. Given that I’d majored in music, knew no one, and I was a woman, taking this job was me being a low-end disruptor, a silly, little thing. I liked what I was doing so I started taking business courses, and with the help of a supportive boss was able to make the unlikely leap from secretary to investment banker. When my boss in banking was fired, I was moved into equity research. To most, including me, it was a step back. My old job was like flying a fighter jet, my new job a cargo plane. But this step back turned out to be a slingshot forward, a career maker. When I left Wall Street to become an entrepreneur, I was disrupting myself, leaving what was comfortable and safe to try something new. Some of my business ventures haven’t succeeded in the way I would like, but others have taken me places I never dreamed of. It has been an adventurous and rewarding experience.
There will be obvious differences between my path and that available to many in Africa. I would suggest that a first step toward successful personal disruption would be take advantage of any and all educational opportunities. Education multiplies the doors that can be opened to a person, and makes disruptive choice possible. Naturally, I would be cautious about encouraging anyone to disrupt from a current position if employment is scarce, and real opportunity in short supply. But there are notable similarities as well; for example, a woman who has taken a career break for child-rearing in the US might start a small business from home in the same way an African woman might engage in a cottage industry of some sort during her child-rearing years, and then move to more conventional employment later on.
Insel Consulting: Why do you think personal disruption is vital in today’s global economy? Are you satisfied with its current growth rate in the US, the Western world, and generally around the globe? What are your plans to propagate this concept on the African continent?
Whitney: Our world is characterized by rapidly changing technologies, industries and even whole economies. Workers are constantly vulnerable to employment disruption by forces that are beyond their control. True job security or career-long employment with a single enterprise or two is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Disruption is closely tied to innovation, and ongoing innovation is the lifeblood of economic growth—if we are not part of this progression we are likely to be left behind by it. Using the principles of personal disruption can help us engineer career change on our own terms, and also offers opportunity to more closely tailor a career to our personal values, strengths, and interests—a happier, more rewarding career.
Personal disruption is a career strategy whose time has come—well-suited to both the business climate and the temperament of today’s working generations. I have spoken to audiences in North and South America, Asia, and Europe. I look forward to addressing audiences in Africa! It’s a pleasure to learn that my book is known and read there.
Insel Consulting: There is a growing number of executives who express deep frustration with their careers, such people look back and feel they should have achieved more or even wished that they had chosen a different career. What do you think they can do in order to find fulfillment in their work and life?
Whitney: First I would say that a certain amount of regret accompanies most lives, and many careers. We would like to minimize it, of course. One of the main reasons to pursue personal disruption is to craft a more rewarding career, one that will allow talent to blossom, new learning to continue, and avoid the stifling of curiosity and innovation that result from boredom. A more rewarding work life means a more rewarding life overall, since much of our time will be spent earning our living. I like to think it is never too late to pursue a more rewarding curve. Late career or even retired professionals may find new opportunities mentoring others, or opportunities to put skills to work in a family business, or in charitable or social good organizations, or to work remotely or part time while enjoying additional travel or family time. Some opportunities may have been missed, but there are always new opportunities, and perhaps still the best opportunities that life can offer.
Insel Consulting: In conclusion, what five pieces of advice would you give people who are looking to make a personal disruption in their lives and careers?
Whitney: First, evaluate your unique strengths. What do you naturally do well, what comes easily to you that others struggle with?
Second, try to identify a task or position with your company that would be a good fit with your personal strengths, or a business endeavor you might start-up that would be suited to those strengths. Look especially for those tasks or business niches that are being overlooked by potential competitors. Do you see a need that isn’t being met, that you could apply your talents to?
Third, embrace your constraints. Perhaps you’ve heard of the film Jaws. Some of the most iconic scenes came about because the mechanical shark that Stephen Spielberg wanted to use didn’t work. Over-budget and behind schedule he finally decided to shoot the scene from the shark’s point of view and let the music and our imagination do the rest. Was Spielberg successful in spite of, or because of his constraints? The famous Roman soldier Marcus Aurelius said, “The impediment to action advances action.”
Fourth, if it is feasible, be willing to consider lateral or backwards career moves, moves that might require a step back in compensation, but offer greater opportunity to grow, space to scale a new curve in learning and skill acquisition. Evaluate the risks carefully, and try to embrace an acceptable level of risk. Be willing to be patient and persevere through the early period of slow progress.
Fifth, be open to the unknown, and to discovering some of your career path even as you travel it.
Thank you for your time Ms. Johnson.
What are your thoughts on personal disruption? Please share your thoughts with us here.
Adedoyin Adebayo conducted this interview. He is a Senior Consultant at Insel Consulting