What makes great things happen? Lessons on disruptive innovation from the story of Philippe Petit

I watched the movie, “The Walk” this week. And it shook me to the core. We live in a world increasingly torn between stifling innovation with tighter intellectual property, company policy, organizational culture and government regulations on the one side and raving about the power of disruption in entrepreneurship that can change the world on the other. The story of Philippe Petit reminded me of how these cannot be opposing forces if truly world-changing art and innovation must happen.

Innovation, like art, needs the right environment to thrive.

You can read or watch the story so I am not going to deliver a spoiler. But here’s what it made me think about: What was it that made this incredible, seemingly impossible feat happen? And what makes it inspirational?

This is what my short list of essential ingredients looked like.

A person consumed by an outrageous idea

History is ripe with examples of people consumed by an outrageous idea. It is not only something others around them feel is outrageous – they know it is too. And that’s what makes them consumed by it: the challenge of making it happen. Call it passion, obsession or whatever you may. No disruption takes place with it. It takes a different kind of person, a different kind of courage to be ok with and practically celebrate being the madman.

Accomplices with faith in the madman

An outrageous idea needs an audience. Without that, it dies an early death. The people who, oftentimes against their own best judgement, listen to and put faith in the madman with the outrageous idea become accomplices to the idea itself. They have protected that idea and given it the confidence to believe it can become reality. They have nurtured it when it most needs nurturing.

Expertise that translates the idea into reality

The idea may still be as outrageous, unheard of and dangerous as it first was. But with the right expertise, it can still see the light of idea. Expertise ensures the idea is set up for success rather than being doomed to fail. Leaders need to guide and support the disruption to make it possible.

The unlikeliest collaboration

Some collaboration will come naturally out of relationships. There will be those that support the madman because they were early accomplices and share a bond. But disruption needs constant feeding. It needs help even from those that are not expected to help and have had nothing to do with the idea so far.

A willingness to trust

Trust in disruption = RISK. It’s not the same as trusting in an environment of certainty and comfort. There are severe consequences to trusting, not doing everything yourself, knowing you can’t control everything and still trusting your collaborators to have your best interest at heart and believing in the larger vision of the idea

A heart

For disruption to be truly meaningful, it has to connect with the heart. It must awe, thrill or fascinate the masses. It must be not only have a story, but be a story: one that can be told and retold with the same amazement. One that can be celebrated. One that includes and acknowledges those who are one in a million spectators in a manner that is still deeply personal.

The absence of persecution

An outrageous idea can be ridiculed but once it becomes a real disruption, it becomes threatening to the powers that be. Nathan Furr and Daniel Snow in The Prius Approach paraphrased it beautifully in the context of how the gas lighting industry responded to Edison’s electric light bulb, when they said, “that kind of move to bolster a doomed technology is (as) the last gasp of a dying industry”; very much like telecom operators in India trying to fight net neutrality to protect their revenues from outdated technology. Imprisoning, filing suits, developing marketing strategies against and socially tarnishing disruptive innovation will not only make the world a worse off place but also deter many others who might otherwise have been inspired by the madman.

Disruptive innovation commands respect and needs channelizing. It does not deserve patronizing and persecution.

It is not easy. Responding to disruptive innovation can be challenging. But if, as a business, you seek organizational innovation or if as a government, you seek social innovation, disruptive innovation often has a significant role to play.

Here are seven questions you should be asking about the culture of innovation you have created:

  1. Do we have the space for a misfit to thrive or do we expect conformism?
  2. Do we provide the freedom for outrageous ideas to be discussed and garner support or do we curtail open communication?
  3. Have we been able to grow our misfits and madmen into leaders who can guide others with their expertise or have all our madmen fallen by the wayside?
  4. Will our people be excited to be part of something new even without fame or material benefit or will they be busy trying to work for themselves?
  5. Will your disruptors be confident that others have their backs or will they be feel compelled to suspicion?
  6. Is disruptive innovation something that is a commercial, business requirement or do people innovate because they feel deeply and passionately about an idea?
  7. Does an idea have to follow rules, abide by policy, stay within boundaries or can it truly disrupt at the cost of threatening everything that is familiar?

As I pause my reflection, I just want to thank Philippe Petit for walking The Walk.

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