You don’t get innovation without disrupting the status quo.
We love innovation and innovators. There might be a downside to always having email from work in your pocket, but there are incredible upsides to having literally every scrap of human knowledge in your pocket, a video camera, and a map to everywhere as well. The rapid advance of technology has given us all an expectation that whatever it is, someone must be working on a better, faster, cheaper way to do it--and it’s probably just around the corner.
But the tough part about innovation is that there’s always an existing, accepted way of doing things. A status quo. And innovations don’t take hold unless there’s someone with the imagination, determination, and leadership skills to challenge, disrupt and displace the status quo.
One great example of this disruption is Sears Roebuck. In its heyday, Sears successfully challenged and displaced the retail status quo. Sears offered a one-stop shopping experience that was affordable to the masses. They were the first retail store to serve both men and women. And the legendary Sears catalog gave people everywhere access to an incredible variety of products. Just like Amazon today, Sears leveraged new technologies, like cheap rail shipping, to completely reinvent retail.
Sears was both loved and hated in communities across America. Consumers loved Sears, but many mom and pop retail stores were shuttered because they couldn't compete with Sears’ steep discounts and vast inventory. Fast-forward to October 2018, and Sears, once the largest, most profitable company in the U.S., files for bankruptcy. What happened?
In short, first Walmart then Amazon--each company leveraging new technologies to displace the old. Sears became deeply attached to familiar business processes and grew complacent with a top spot in retail that lasted for more than 100 years. Walmart pioneered revolutionary ways to share data with suppliers that enabled them to dramatically increase efficiency and reduce costs. This data-driven approach enabled Walmart to offer better prices and a better shopping experience. Sears’ market share started to erode. There are many examples of Sears missteps, but the final nail in the coffin came with the advent of Amazon.
What started as an online bookstore during the dot.com boom in 1995, has grown to a multi-billion dollar company that provides a convenient, deeply personalized online shopping experience where you can buy anything and everything at low prices. Amazon thrives through constant innovation. Product reviews, personalized recommendations, free shipping, and Amazon Prime were all revolutionary when they were introduced. Add to that smart acquisitions like Whole Foods and Amazon’s move into video entertainment and cloud computing to begin to grasp the sweeping breadth of this global business today. Amazon has put most bookstores out of business. Toy stores are under pressure. Even Walmart is losing share. Amazon’s reach into our everyday lives, especially in the COVID era, is undeniable. Who do you think is serving all of those Zoom calls you’re on?
But challenging the status quo is not easy. It’s met with fierce opposition. And not just from competitors. Employees, company leaders, and boards of directors can all push back. To say nothing about your own self-doubt. Our mentor, Sal Khan, founder and CEO of Khan University, pointedly says, “Growth hurts.” The times when you are waking up in the middle of the night in cold sweats and questioning every decision you have made, that is when you are growing, and it hurts!
Keith Krach, one of the founders of the Global Mentor Network, is a firm believer that change is the most powerful word in the English language. According to Krach, without change, we cannot learn, grow or prosper.
Change is scary, but it’s something that all leaders and aspiring leaders must confront--and drive--throughout their careers.
In an earlier post, we talked with venture capitalist, Tim Draper, about his favorite quote from Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
According to Draper, “Any time I've made a decision based on fear, it has been the wrong decision. Every bold decision I've made has not always been right, but it has always created a more interesting and satisfying outcome. And I learn a lot more from the bold decision.”
Transformational leadership is all about challenging the status quo, making change, and driving innovation. That takes some courage and determination.
For more life lessons from our mentors about innovation, check out our videos on “Challenging the Status Quo.”