Innovation ultimately begins inside an individual, according to author and former Wall Street analyst Whitney Johnson.
“There are volumes of research indicating how the odds of success improve for products, services, companies and countries, but the fundamental unit of disruption is the individual,” Johnson said. “The best way to drive corporate innovation is through personal disruption.”
Johnson spoke Wednesday morning at the Virginia Festival of the Book’s Leadership Breakfast about key points from her book “Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work.”
After moving to New York, Johnson started as a secretary at Smith Barney, moved up to investment banker, then became an equity analyst and eventually co-founded the investment firm Rose Park Investors.
“I would not have known to call it this then, but when I walked onto Wall Street in the secretarial side door and when I walked off of Wall Street to become an entrepreneur, I was a disruptor,” she said.
Disruptive innovation, coined by Clayton Christensen, is a term used to describe a low-end or new-market innovation that eventually upends an industry. Johnson cited the examples of Toyota to General Motors, Target to Sears and Uber to Yellow Cab as companies that secured a foothold at the low end of the market and eventually took off because their motivation was just as strong as their competitors’.
“Think Amazon in the ’90s; initially its position is weak,” she said. “Barnes & Noble and Borders could have crushed them like cockroach, but they didn’t. Market leaders rarely bother.”
By the time a counter attack does make sense, she said, it’s too late. This disruption is easy to miss because growth can be flat for years and suddenly spike.
In her book, Johnson discusses how disruptive innovation can be applied in a person’s life. She goes into detail about seven variables that can help or hinder someone’s movement along an “S” curve, which in this case explains time delays in a person’s success and provides milestones they can seek.
She said two of the most difficult variables for people to push through are giving failure its due and battling entitlement.
“We never think we’re entitled,” she said. “In fact, research says that the more successful you are, the more you think you deserve the success that you have. So that’s the one… it’s always there. As soon as you’re entitled, you think you know everything and you stop learning. Right at that moment, when you continue to move up the curve, you stop learning and you get stuck.”
She said people should recognize their entitlement, be willing to listen to different opinions and open up their network to ask others for help.
Jane Kulow, the festival’s director, said the Leadership Breakfast committee looks for somebody who has written a book that is valuable to the business community and can give the attendees something to use in their lives.
She said Johnson surpassed all of her expectations because she was smart, entertaining and gave thoughtful points to consider.
“Whitney’s book not only gives you lessons for your business life, she also provided information about how this can be useful in your personal life,” Kulow said. “It’s sort of an extra bonus.”