How to unlock your disruptive potential in three important steps

Want to be the author of positive and satisfying change in your life? Follow these three steps to unlock your disruptive potential.

In this extract from Success Secrets of Disruptors, acclaimed speaker on the future of work, leadership and innovation, Jane Young shares what you need to know and do to pursue the change you want to see and unlock your disruptive potential.

Are you a disruptor?

“Don’t rock the boat.” “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” “Let sleeping dogs lie.” Much of the advice we receive as we move through life encourages us to keep our heads down, stay out of trouble and not speak up if we see something that can be improved.

When we pursue an easy life, we miss valuable opportunities to create positive change. But moving against the tide takes courage and individual thought.

Sometimes we have to break things purposefully to create positive change. And if you are someone that cannot turn away from opportunities to make the world better, and is not afraid of the mess (and potential failure) that comes from the pursuit of that change, you are a disruptor.

As a successful disruptor you will notice areas and things that are Identify areas that are crying out for change, you’ll create your own disruption strategy to bring about positive change, and you will inspire others to join you and help reshape your industry.

Disruptors are the world-changers. The inventors and innovators. The people who make history. Let’s explore how you can unleash your own disruption potential.

The first key: stop looking for your purpose 

Humans have a deep instinct for meaning. Purpose matters, a study of 7,000 people across all walks of life found that people who lack a strong life purpose – defined as ‘a self-organising life aim that stimulates goals’ – are more likely to die early than those who don’t. 

The researchers were shocked to discover that purpose is more important for decreasing risk of death than avoiding drinking and smoking or getting regular exercise.

“Just like people have basic physical needs, like to sleep and eat and drink, they have basic psychological needs,” says professor Alan Rozanski. “The need for meaning and purpose is number one. It’s the deepest driver of wellbeing there is.” 

On a personal level, the search for purpose brings existential angst to many a disruptor. If you have a single, defined, lifelong purpose, congratulations – you’re a rare breed.

For most of us, the search for an answer to the question ‘How do I find my purpose?’ induces a tortuous tailspin that depletes our energy, and culminates in endless false starts that erode self-belief and hamper the realisation of our disruptive potential. In truth, you don’t find your purpose, you build it. You develop it, by doing the work. 

Most of us don’t have a sole purpose – we have multiple sources of purpose that span work, family and community; and purpose is seldom static: it shifts over time, as our lives evolve through stages of maturity. That’s why focusing on action is more fruitful for disruptors than waiting for a divine calling to poke us in the face before we act, or fixating on the crafting of an elegant one-liner that encapsules our perpetual ‘Why?’ 

Some things we spend time on matter, others don’t. The act of doing something worthwhile develops our sense of purpose. Pick from a long list of possible good things, make a bad plan (it will change), do, learn and adapt… and meaning grows. 

Don’t sweat your bliss. Researchers from Columbia University found that people who believe pursuing passion means following what brings them joy are less likely to succeed than those who believe that it’s about focusing on what you care about. Passion wanes, while caring powers persistence. 

The second key: craft a bold and epic tale of disruption 

Disruptors are visionaries: they see things that others don’t. As agents of change, we need others to see what we see too. 

Most change efforts fizzle and die. According to McKinsey, 70% of change initiatives fall short. And Patrick Hoverstadt, in his book The Fractal Organization, claims that a whopping 90-98% of strategy is never implemented

How do you succeed, against all odds, in departing the ordinary world, slaying the dragon and returning to your village with the elixir? 

It all starts with crafting a narrative so meaningful and moving that it induces belief-shifting epiphanies. Once the epiphany has occurred, the practice of behaviour change begins. 

When crafting a narrative for a product, I immerse myself in its world, from the weeds of feature mechanics, to the helicopter view of market spaces, zooming all the way out to shifts in technology and culture.

From this exploration, a storyline emerges that joins the dots to reveal the context – the positioning – of the product. This storyline determines the strategy for reaching and engaging people; it influences the place you hold in their hearts and minds and what you build next. 

Narratives of disruption follow a similar pattern. Tying your disruptive mission into epic shifts that are creating pressure for change; vividly showing the painful consequences of failure to rise to your call to adventure; and drilling into the detail of how your mission addresses these issues – to create a better world in ways that no one else can because you have a unique combination of traits – is the stuff of disruption. A disruptor’s role is to create a movement, not a mandate, by embracing their own weirdness. 

Your life purpose may be a perpetual work in progress, but the endgame your quest is shooting for must be vivid and measurable so that you – and everyone who comes with you – grasps the current reality and what it’ll take to realise the desired outcome. 

When you’ve positioned your disruptive quest in this way – with boldness, with clarity of destination and a starkly contrasted picture of the old versus the new world – the work begins of weaving your vision, values and sense of meaning and purpose into everyday conversations with stakeholders and collaborators.

Disruptors sprinkle magic meaning-dust all over every day work so that even the most mundane task is no longer another to-do but a vital step on your journey towards a new and better world. 

The third key: create feedback loops 

Everyone and their dog talks about ‘agility’ these days, for good reason. As life becomes more complex and unpredictable, frequently checking that we’re on the right track and adapting our plans on the fly is less risky than long-term roadmaps that assume we have all the answers up front, only to reveal that the thing we’ve spent ages working on misses the mark. 

Agility is about a ‘test-and-learn’ approach, seeking feedback as early and often as possible to optimise what we’re doing and stay on track. 

Too often we’re persuaded by experts to use cookie- cutter tactics, yet scaling tech companies has shown that a channel, tactic or message that works in one situation may not work in another. 

Best principles trump best practices. Learning from others can inform our hypotheses, but the more knowledge and experience a disruptor amasses, the more aware they become of how little they know. ‘Let’s try it and see’ is a winning mantra. 

One study of over 3,600 leaders found that the more experienced we are, the more we overrate our self- awareness. Although most of us believe we’re self-aware, only 10–15% of people studied actually are. These vital few are the disruptors, who intentionally disrupt their own mental models, often by seeking critical feedback from people who are willing to tell them the truth. 

How much of what you think and say is heavily influenced by what you think others want to hear? Have you developed your own belief system, personal code and unique voice? Even this level of vertical development isn’t sufficient to unleash our disruptive potential.

We must advance to what psychologist Robert Kegan calls the ‘self-transforming mind’, at which point we can step back from our ideology and see it as limited or partial – we become aware of how little we know. We can hold more contradictions and opposites in our minds and no longer gravitate towards polarised thinking. 

As we age, we pass through stages of development, making sense of the world around us. These stages are obvious in children, less so in adults. Advancement through these stages correlates with our ability to lead through times of change. Choose your experiments wisely, iterate quickly and ‘only don’t know’. 

Jane Young is a highly acclaimed speaker on the future of work, delivering keynotes around the world for the likes of Pfizer, Deloitte, Gartner, Cisco and WPP.

Jane explores the future of work through the lens of growth, innovation and leadership and is currently immersed in scaling tech companies that help organisations transform working culture. She is also a contributing author to Success Secrets of Disruptors.

Photo by Paula Corberan