5 characteristics of disruptive innovators

By Kirk MacDonald

Pyrrhonian Partners

Toronto, Ontario, Canada


There are two places to find new ideas: places no one has looked before and places where people have looked, but not hard enough. Kids are taught that big ideas come from the former, but the later actually may be more promising.”  — Paul Graham

If there was ever a person who embodies disruptive innovation, Graham would be among those at the top of the list. He co-founded Viaweb, a software tool that allowed users to make their own Internet stores, in 1996.

In other words, it was among the first — if not the first — e-commerce platform before e-commerce became the rage. Viaweb was sold to Yahoo! in 1998 for US$49.5 million and became the Yahoo! Store. In 2005, Graham co-founded Y Combinator after giving a talk at the Harvard Computer Society titled “How To Start A Start-up” that has since provided seed funding to 1,300 start-ups, including Airbnb and Stripe. He also founded Hacker News and is an accomplished essayist.

Momentum and curiosity can take you far down the road of innovation.
Momentum and curiosity can take you far down the road of innovation.

I reflected back on my quest to surface innovative ideas and agree wholeheartedly with his assessment that exploring “places where people have looked but not hard enough” is more promising.

Here’s why: In attempting to find new ideas in places no one has looked before, there is a long development cycle and higher risk. Granted, there is also a higher potential return. But very few companies beyond the big names — Amazon, Google, Apple, Netflix, Twitter, Square, Salesforce, LinkedIn, IBM, Tesla, Ford, GM, Boeing, and Airbus, to name several — have years of product development runway, the technical capability, deep pockets to fund double-digit or high single-digit capital expense budgets, or, in some cases, years of losses to introduce grounding-breaking products or industries.

But the places where people have looked but not hard enough is a different story. This is a game everyone can play.

Taken from my own learnings, here’s how to build a cultural habit of optimising innovation:

1. Momentum: Once a new idea has been agreed upon, build a project team with a dedicated leader that meets regularly, socialises updates, and moves fast. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to launch a new product if the project management rhythm is broken.

As Rupert Murdoch said recently: “The world is changing very fast. Big will not beat small anymore. It will be the fast beating the slow.”

2. Master uncertainty: Human nature pleads for certainty. You won’t find it developing new ideas. This is a space where failure is more common than success. If it was easy and fast, everyone would be doing it.

3. Curiosity: You can’t go somewhere new without looking at where companies have been. A deep understanding of what caused a new idea from becoming sustainable is essential to innovation.

4. Belief: The best ideas are generally met with an avalanche of naysayers. The successful innovators build project teams that are an extension of cults.

5. Approach innovation holistically: To execute on new ideas, the parts are often many times greater than the whole.

About Kirk MacDonald

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.