disruptive thinking

3 Mental Blocks to Disruptive Thinking

disruptive thinkingIn the year 2005, I happened to be part of a startup that disrupted the Telecom world by creating solar-powered telecom infrastructure. This innovative infrastructure, powered by disruptive thinking, had the potential to increase mobile telephone penetration from the existing 20% (largely urban areas) to 80%  in places where there was little or no available electricity. It changed the way telecom operators served their markets and caused disruption amongst existing telecom equipment manufacturers. It challenged them to come up with newer profit models, product features and channel engagement.

That start-up had nothing to lose. The existing equipment manufacturers, on the other hand, were heavily invested in their ongoing businesses. The marginal cost of doing something entirely new was very high while the cost of continuing with their existing business method was very low.

There are many more examples of big names who were zoned out by disruptive business models; Blockbuster, Kodak, Nokia, Yahoo, Polaroid, and MySpace, etc. The list continues.

When I ask participants in my Disruptive Thinking workshop for names of organizations that encourage disruptive thinking, the usual names that crop up are 3M, Google, and Apple.

The reason a handful of these companies stand out is because they have been able to institutionalize the disruptive thinking process. The reason others don’t succeed is because of their mental blocks.

The top 3 glaring mental blocks I hear most often from my participants are:

  1. Fear of making mistakes
  2. What we have works fine
  3. It is not part of my Key Result Areas (KRA)

Fear of making mistakes

This usually comes out as, “With the way the markets are right now, I wouldn’t advise doing that.” Or, “We are not big enough to attempt this,” or even, “We are too big to try that and fail.”

This fear stems from the fact that no one wants to stick their neck out doing something that might fail, making them look foolish in the process. Most people will not remember what went well, but everyone will remember the ‘scapegoat’ who made a mess by failing.

On their part, most participants try to externalize this as an organization ‘culture’ issue over which they have no control. But it is also true that they can do better individually.

For example, most of us have a personal financial portfolio which has at least one risky asset class (forming say, 20% of the portfolio) which provides the upside, while the other 80% is steady and lower risk. Similarly, we can have at-least one out of five projects that we work on which is riskier than the others and has a higher chance of giving us an upside. Even if it does not work out, we still have the other four projects to prove our worth. Knowingly dealing with a riskier project reduces our fear of making mistakes.

What we have works fine

This reason often gets masked as, “It’s too radical,” or, “How do you know it will work? You are not an expert.” Or, “It goes against all combined logic.”

When I discuss disruptive thinking models, some senior participants try to point out that they have been practicing Kaizen for a long time and it serves them well.

I then introduce them to 3 degrees of innovation:

  • Disruptive
  • Sustaining
  • Efficiency1

It is at this point that these senior participants realize that what they have been doing all these years involves more sustaining and efficiency innovations rather than any disruptive innovationThe same participants then start to appreciate that disruptive thinking encompasses anything from profit model to customer engagement and is not just limited to the product.2

It is not part of my KRA

A significant number of the participants say that they do have a disruptive idea, have enough data and cost-benefit analysis to back it all up, but are unsure of how to sell it to the internal stakeholders to take it forward.

While it’s one thing to have a disruptive idea, it’s another to help it see the light of day. By its very definition, a sophisticated disruptive idea (one that is not so easy for competition to copy) cuts across functions. It means employees attempting this method of thinking must take off their functional mentality hat and don a broader/bigger picture one.

Given organizational resource constraints and the need to generate quick profits for shareholders, long-term thinking can be given a short shrift in most places.

It is here that the influencing skills come in!

If one goes beyond one’s defined KRAs and collaborates cross-functionally by finding common ground and understanding emotions, there is a higher chance of being able to sell one’s disruptive idea to others. Moving from a ‘my idea’ to ‘our idea’ concept ensures there is no insecurity of who will get the credit eventually.

Such people get promoted easily, unlike others who rely just on their pedigree and past work experience to only meet expectations.

So what kind of mental blocks do you come across frequently? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


  1. Clayton Christensen on Disruptive Innovation
  2. Ten Types of Innovation



  • Dr Pallab Bandyopadhyay

    March 7, 2018

    well articulated

  • Suraj Chaudhry

    March 7, 2018

    Thanks Dr


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