Disrupt the Business Model, Not the Business

Wouldn’t it be nice if companies could keep doing the same things over time and maintain the same level of success? The reality is, most companies will eventually need to choose disruption to their structure, flow, or products. When it happens to you, your methods can make the difference between change that takes root and change that fails, says Laura Klein, Vice President at Business Talent Group in California, a UX designer and product manager for over twenty years. Laura, who recently gave a talk on this topic at Lean Startup Week 2017, shares some tips for how to innovate inside an already successful company without doing damage.

“A really important thing to know is are you trying to disrupt the business model or trying to optimize the current business and improve it?” Laura says. She feels that these two very different situations are often confused, which can start the disruption off on the wrong foot.

For example, Laura says, “Doing something like a big tech transformation or massively optimizing or scaling is very different from completely replacing a product line with another.”

Involve coworkers and employees early

Disruption means change, and nobody likes to show up to work and be told they have new responsibilities or a new role without some lead time and a vision, Laura says. She encourages leaders to, “Get your coworkers and other stakeholders involved early and often. They need to help you create the company where you’re all going to be working very soon.”

In fact, your coworkers or employees are not much different than users or customers in this process; you’ll need to ask them questions and meet their needs in much the same way. “You need to treat them with the same care and empathy as you do paying customers.”

How you let people in on the changes is a delicate balancing act. This is not the time for big bold announcements that you’re disrupting the whole company unless you want to create panic. In fact, you’re not disrupting the whole company, “You’re making some changes, improving things, and bringing people along with you,” Laura says.

At the same time, don’t wait until you’ve already rolled changes out; clue people in early. “If you think you’re getting resistance from stakeholders early on, trying springing [the changes] on them, and see how they react.”

Don’t forget the other stakeholders

While it’s natural to think of coworkers and employees first as having the greatest stake in the day-to-day operations of a company, Laura urges leaders not to forget about the other stakeholders, such as HR, lawyers, procurement, finance, and “all of those teams that are there to keep the company running smoothly.” These teams, she points out, are there to keep your company out of trouble, and should be clued in as early as possible.

After all, these are the people that keep your business running smoothly and hopefully steer it clear of chaos. “You need to know what rules you can break, and what brands you’re allowed to use when you’re promoting this brand new thing,” Laura says.

Not to mention that if there’s an existing brand to protect, “protectors of that brand will not be amused at the disruption,” Laura says. She encourages talking to the teams that will most likely offer the most resistance—with good reason—to find out the best way forward.

Checking in with these folks will also help you make sure that your disruption won’t threaten funding for an existing process. “You need to make sure you’re being judged on what a startup would be judged by, that you have reasonable learning goals, not how much you ship or how much revenue you make in the first three months.”

She gives the example of a team she coaches in government who are running into a lot of problems. “It took them four out of twelve months of funding just to figure out which contract to use,” Laura says. This is the sort of thing that would have been useful to figure out in advance of getting started.

Respect the old

It’s easy to get excited about the bold or shiny new vision gleaming on the horizon. But sometimes, Laura points out, the people responsible for creating the old product or process you’re about to disrupt are still involved and have a vested interest in it. You have to be careful not to make them feel that their work didn’t count.

With another client, Laura explains, “We’re changing the way we find a particular kind of algorithmic match.” This means asking a lot of questions about whether the old way was the optimum solution or whether it was created by the constraints of the technology.” She says they’re careful not to ruffle feathers and to be inclusive.

When faced with bridging the old and the new, she recommends making “small iterative changes” and providing as much of a road map to those who are reluctant as possible. If applying Lean Startup, for example, to a big company that has been “stable, secure, and predictable,” Laura says “you can introduce more user-centered design, more learning and experimentation and find the pieces of it that work within your organization. Then people get used to that and you move on to the next step.”

Laura acknowledges this process can be harder for entrepreneurs with more experience in startups who “want everything to happen right now” because at big companies, “you have to be incredibly patient.”

This leads to her final point: If you’re going to attempt disruption inside a big company, “you need a strong commitment that this will be a multi-year process, not twelve weeks and done.” After all, you still have to execute on existing business.

If that seems overwhelming, Laura offers a reminder not to attempt to recreate the wheel: “Don’t try to do it on your own. Get someone who’s done it before to help.”


Also published on Medium.