Whitney Johnson – The Disruptive Individual, Riding S Curves and Liberating Constraints

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So welcome to the OutsideVoices podcast. Today’s guest is Whitney Johnson. Whitney was recognized as one of the world’s most influential management thinkers in 2015, and is best known for her work on driving corporate innovation through personal disruption. She’s formerly the co-founder of Rose Park Advisors alongside Clayton Christensen, the author of the seminal work on innovation, “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” Previously, Whitney was an Institutional Investor ranked equity research analyst for eight consecutive years. She’s author of the critically acclaimed book “Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work”, and “Dare, Dream and Do” published in 2012. So, welcome to the show, Whitney.

Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.

So Whitney, at the core of your book – the most recent book you’ve written, “Disrupt Yourself” – is the S-curve model of disruption which has been around for about 50 years, but mostly used for products and markets, and not for careers or individually. I’m curious, what led up to you applying it in this way?

It’s a great question. Yes, as you said, it was developed by Everett M. Rogers in 1962, so we’re actually going on 54 years, but as you mentioned, it’s been historically used to help us gauge how quickly an innovation will be adopted and, in the process of my trying to understand disruption initially as an equity analyst and then having this insight that companies don’t disrupt, people do. I started to think, “Well, if we’re applying the S-curve to help us understand innovation, why can’t we also have it help us understand the psychology of disruption?”

So, that was really the beginnings of this notion, and then I realized, what does this mean then? Well, at the low end of the curve, we know that growth is going to be very slow and seemingly non-existent, and if you know that, then that helps you avoid discouragement. You’re trying something new, you’re starting a new job, you’re launching a new product, you’re working really, really hard, nothing seems to be happening but the S-curve tells you that there are going to be time delays, and it helps you understand, “Alright, I don’t need to be discouraged. This is just part of the process,” and then, as you move into that sleek, steep back of the S-curve, that’s the hyper growth stage where you know you now have momentum, it’s working, and that’s the place where you feel very, very competent, and with that competence comes confidence.

Then at the top of the curve, you’ve started to reach this point of mastery which we all know is sort of saturation of the market, which is fantastic but it also means, from a personal standpoint, once you’ve reached that level, things are very, very easy but you’re no longer enjoying the feel-good effects of learning, and if you’re not enjoying learning, then boredom and even complacency can kick in. At which point you need to jump to a new curve, because if you don’t, your plateau can become a precipice.

So by taking this S-curve and applying it to individuals, it helps us understand the time delays that are involved with any sort of growth or learning and give us a road map for understanding what we might be feeling or thinking as we’re trying to trying to take on something new.

You refer to the psychology of this process, and I find this really interesting because you use the concept of jobs to be done, and the two elements are the functional job to be done, but also the emotional job to be done. I think this is particularly relevant for Millennials, for instance, who are maybe in large organizations wondering whether their personal sense of purpose is well-aligned with their organization’s sense of purpose. So what would you say is the job to be done from an emotional perspective, of a career?

Yeah, absolutely. Well, what’s interesting about it is whenever we take on a new job, we’re actually hiring that — the company is hiring you, but you’re hiring it to do a couple of jobs for you, and the first one is obviously the functional job of putting food on the table or a roof over your head, but the bigger, much, much, much bigger job that oftentimes we don’t talk about very much is the emotional job. You’re hiring that job to do something for you. It can be for status and prestige, it could be for the satisfaction of a job well done, et cetera.

So what oftentimes happens when you’re first starting a new job is that you’ve taken on that new job, it’s doing the functional job that you need it to do, you’re getting a paycheck every two weeks, but it’s not initially doing the emotional job because you’re — it’s hard, and you don’t know what you’re doing yet, and so when you can understand that it’s going to take a little while before it can kick in of doing that emotional job of feeling this sense of confidence and competence and enjoyment of your work. It allows you to be a little bit more patient with yourself. And I think that’s a really important thing to realize is you’re not necessarily bad at it, it’s just that you haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

So there’s a huge amount in there. You work with a lot of organizations, leadership teams, but if we think of someone further down an organization who might be frustrated at the pace at which their organization is moving, and their inability to, perhaps, move their idea or their innovative project forward. What advice would you give to people? How does the job to be done piece play out in that environment? I’m really curious as to how should an individual think about patience, think about making sure they’re well-positioned to ride up the curve when the compounding effects kick in.

That’s a great question. So what I would say is, oftentimes, when you’re at the low end of the curve, the question becomes: am I at the low end of the curve, or am I on the wrong curve, right? Because you don’t know; you can’t distinguish between the two. So I’ve come up with a number of criteria that you can use to determine if you’re just on the low end of the curve, and so one of those might be – or not might be, but is, are you taking the right kinds of risks?

I differentiate in my book between the competitive and the market risks, and the competitive risk is where there might be 10 other people there trying to do this job and you’re competing for resources with them. The market risk is, instead, you’re figuring out how to play where no one else is playing inside of the organization. So that’s the first step to helping to ensure that you’re on just the low end and not the wrong end of the curve.

The second thing is that it’s really important that you play to not only your strengths, but to your distinctive strengths, and the important piece around the strengths is that, oftentimes, we try to focus on the things that we worked really hard to learn how to do and say, “This is my strength,” but, in fact your strengths are those things that are as natural as breathing for you, so much so that you undervalue them, and you overvalue what you aren’t. So, if you’re at the low end of the curve, you’re going to be playing to your strengths, not when you’re in a bind, but deliberately, and what I would say is you’re bringing your superpowers out to play, and you’re playing where no one else is playing.

The third criterion is: is this hard, but not frustrating? There’s a difference between the two. Sometimes, work is just hard, because work is hard. But if it’s frustrating, there’s a lot of things that are going on chemically in your brain that says this may be the wrong curve, because you just can’t get anything done.

The fourth thing is: are you gaining momentum? If you’re finding that the kudos you’re receiving from your boss, or the number of leads you’re getting, or the traction you’re getting in terms of buying from people internally is increasing, that momentum is increasing, then you don’t have enough information yet, to know that you’re on the wrong curve and you should keep going, but those are really the four ways that I say, if you’re trying to figure out getting by and through your day — the ideas inside of an organization, look at those four criteria. If you’re meeting all four of them, stay the course. Steve Jobs said 50% of the success of all intrapreneurs is simply perseverance, and so at that point you stay the course until you have enough information to know, “Oops, it’s the wrong curve. Time to jump to a new curve.”

Yeah, but I guess worry is that either people embark on this journey as a reaction to something that’s happened to them, or they don’t realize where they are and find themselves standing on a ladder leaning against the wrong wall. But what you’ve done is articulate the steps that someone should take to proactively reflect on the journey they’re on, and whether they actually need to continue or actually to jump onto a different curve, to use your language.

Exactly, and the beauty of this is that even if it turns out to be the wrong curve, like a rebound job or a rebound girlfriend or boyfriend, you still learn things in the process that can be used to jump to the next curve. Just not every curve moves in the hyper growth. Again, if you look at the theory of disruption, the odds of success improve. There’s 6 times higher and the revenue opportunity 20 times greater but that’s just going from 6% to 36%. So still, 64% of the time it’s going to be the wrong curve, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot that can be gained from that wrong curve as you then jump to your next curve.

So another really strong theme that came out in the book is the fact that constraints are not as negative, necessarily as they should be, but often, if you reframe them, you can actually use them as enablers. I was really very interested in the individual trying to innovate within an established organization where you’ve got the organizational imperative that is actually creating and maintaining the organization. So, one of the big constraints on an individual in that environment trying to disrupt within an existing organization is the constraint of limited management attention. So I’m interested, how should people think about that, struggling with these constraints of money, resources, management attention? 

I have two parts. The first is that a constraint is — it actually gives you feedback, so the image that helps me think through this is that of a skateboarder. So, skateboarders are considered some of the fastest learners in the world because they receive this really fast, quick and very useful feedback. So, one of the things that we often find ourselves doing is we feel this constraint, we’re bumping up against in, and it’s really uncomfortable and yet every time you bump up against a constraint, whether it’s a lack of money, a lack of time, a lack of buy-in, you’re getting information, and that information can be very, very valuable to you to figure out how can I move up the curve more successfully? So I think that that’s one really helpful thing for me when I’m thinking about constraints.

The second thing is that the importance of inside of an organization, but I would say anywhere is that the importance of battling entitlement, the belief that I exist, therefore I deserve, or I’m entitled. And this is a sort of emotional entitlement – I’ll give you a very simple example, which is a few months ago, I went to the doctor and he told me I was pre-diabetic, and I should’ve said, “Oh yeah, I’ll cut back on sugar,” and instead, I just completely threw a tantrum, like sugar is my only vice, I deserve a cookie, and realizing that this was me being emotionally entitled. And the same thing happens inside of our organizations. We have these ideas, we think they’re brilliant, and they should be adopted just because we deserve for them to be adopted – we deserve the cookie.

So, the thing that I’ve learned throughout my career is that whenever you have a brilliant idea, it’s important that you understand that when you’re inviting people to adopt your brilliant idea, you’re asking them to jump to a new curve, and that new curve is your curve. So we, oftentimes, do not do the hard work because we’re emotionally entitled to get buy-in for the idea, to figure out who are all our stakeholders, what language do those stakeholders speak? I may speak finance, but my other stakeholder speaks marketing or sales or whatever, and I need to do the work of translating that idea into a language or the patois that they understand, and I think that while it doesn’t mean that all of our ideas will get adopted, I think we are much more likely to get a lot more buy-in if we can understand that sometimes we’re emotionally entitled, and if we’ll do the hard work of understanding that pushback gives me information, and then once I get that pushback, if I’ll translate, I think we would see a lot more success than we do currently.

This really resonated with me. We used to use language of liberating disciplines in Syngenta, and I have  just having finished reading the Elon Musk book. The way in which they tested the vehicles in winter conditions, where their constraints were so extraordinary that they actually figured out a way of doing this in a couple of weeks, whereas the industry standard is it takes the whole season to do this. So there are some great examples of companies or people who understand the power of constraints. Elon Musk is obviously, a huge disruptor and not an incumbent, so both of those things give him a bit of an unfair advantage, but in some of your work, Whitney, with large incumbent organizations, how do they take advantage of constraints? Have you got any specific examples of companies that are really harnessing the power of the constraint?

Yeah, I do. One company that I think does a brilliant job of this is Intuit, the company that brought us QuickBooks and TurboTax. So they’ve obviously got a lot of resources that they could throw at innovation, and one example where they didn’t is that they wanted to improve the lives of India’s 1.2 billion people – that’s all. So, of course, they could’ve thrown a lot of resources at this, but instead, they said, “Okay, we’re going to take three engineers, we’re going to send them to rural India for three weeks and just have them figure something out.” So that’s pretty limited resources.

So, these engineers, they go to rural India, they’re sort of trying to figure things out, they get caught in this torrential downpour at a bus stop, and start having a conversation with some of the farmers, the local farmers, and they discover that these farmers have really limited access to commodity prices. Going back to your former world at Syngenta. Again, they could’ve thrown a lot of resources at this, but they didn’t. They just said, “Alright, well let’s start iterating. Let’s start texting, manually texting price and buyer information.” Well, after iterating about 12 times, they finally came up with a solution, and the solution now is this sophisticated text message based platform using these complicated algorithms that help farmers get the best prices. They’ve got two million farmers that are using it, and who enjoy this 20% increase in their bottom line, which is the difference between no education and an education for someone’s child, all because the farmers were willing to embrace constraint — sorry, the engineers were willing to embrace constraints and Intuit was willing to impose the constraints, so I think that’s a wonderful example of this idea of imposing and embracing constraints.

Was that an explicit decision by senior leadership? Was that based on the insight that constraints can be liberating, or was that more of an accident from which they’ve learned quite significantly?

I don’t know for sure, but my hypothesis would be that this was deliberate. I mean, Scott Cook is very schooled in not only in the frameworks of disruption, but also in the frameworks of lean startups. So, again, I would conjecture that it was a deliberate decision made on their part.

Related to that, I think Intuit is a public company, isn’t it?


I’m curious, as you work with large organizations, particularly public ones, what are you seeing in terms of how leadership are balancing the hyper-aggressive and demanding needs of Wall Street for quarterly numbers, but at the same time are thinking through what disruption could come from a new entrant, and how to actually ensure that the organization remains sustainable longer-term. There are many industries where this is happening like finance, like farming, the car industry, what are you seeing happening? What are you seeing the really good execs doing, and what are you seeing in terms of some of the problems that the others are facing?

It’s a great question, and having been in Wall Street analyst myself, one of those people that was beating the drum to hit quarterly numbers is kind of embarrassing, right? Poacher turned gamekeeper, if you will. I have a great example of this, I remember when I was covering América Móvil and Carlos Slim, the controlling shareholder of América Móvil, says, “We’re going to introduce prepaid cards in the United States,” and quarter after quarter after quarter, their numbers were abysmal. We were like, “Shut down the business!” Well, it’s a good thing they didn’t, because, now, their subsidiary here in the United States, TracFone, has like 50% of the prepaid market.

And I remember another example of Jonathan Bush, who’s the CEO of Aethna Healthcare where he just said, “We’re going to grow our top line by 30% per year,” but then there were sometimes, some hiccups and I think one of the things that’s happening is some of the companies that decide that that they want to be really innovative are going private, unfortunately, and those that are staying public are saying to themselves, “Alright, I get this, but I’m in this for the long haul. It may mean that I’m not going to hit my earnings in the near term, but it doesn’t matter because I’m going to create value for my shareholders.” That takes a real tremendous amount of steel, and it requires a compensation scheme that rewards the CEO and even the board, for being able to stay the course and take the long view but, to manage to the quarter, you can’t do it. You just can’t.

Yeah, absolutely. Just by withdrawing quarterly guidance, that’s often triggers a sell signal in the company, and it takes a very, very bold management team to do something like that.

 It really does.

So, in that environment where innovation, nonetheless, is such an important part of sustaining the life blood of the company, assuming that going private isn’t an option, what do you see really good leaders actually doing to create the conditions for this innovation?

Well, going back to my original thesis is that companies don’t disrupt, people do, and the really powerful companies are those that develop capabilities before they need them. What I find happening is that people are saying, “Okay, we know we have this imperative to innovate. We also know that people are wanting to bring their dreams to work or else we’re going to lose our top talent,” and so people are increasingly, I believe, and I’ve said this, I think 2016 is the year of personal disruption is this understanding that if I will evaluate where my company is on the S-curve, if I’ll evaluate where my team is on the S-curve, if I evaluate where the individuals are on each of the S-curve and try to balance for some people on the low end, some people on the sweet spot, some people on the high end, and when people get to the high end, look for opportunities for them to try something new. Then, as you have each of the individuals continually enjoying these feel-good effects of learning, they are going to come up with ways to disrupt and so that individual disruption is going to drive the corporate innovation.

So, if I’m a leader of a team in an organization – it could be an executive team, it could be a sales team – what does that mean — is there an emerging leadership model? Are there new sets of behaviors that the leader needs to demonstrate to have these conversations because five years ago, it’s unlikely that you might have said that people need to bring their dreams to work. People probably wouldn’t have listened to you, perhaps then, as much as they do now.

Right. Well, and that’s partly — I mean, we partly have demographics to thank for that, right? Because this huge cohort of Millennials were saying, “If I can’t then I won’t. I won’t come.” So, what I’m finding is that, as I work through large corporations, I’m finding that they’ll say to themselves, “I’ll go through these frameworks,” and I’ll ask people the question, “Who’s at their top of their learning curve?” and people will raise their hands and then I’ll turn to one of this C-suite executives and say, “Did you see that? You need to have a conversation with them.”

So, basically, making it okay to say, “You know what, I’m ready to try something new,” and if someone’s at the top of the curve and they’re like, “Ah, I’m a little comfortable. I’m a little afraid to try something new.” A leader will say to that person, “You need a new stretch assignment and it’s time for you to try something new because we need to unleash you and you’re not getting unleashed here.” So, as you allowed that person to move into a stretch assignment, then the people who are in the sweet spot can sort of move into the leadership role on the team of being the experts and then it becomes a — there’s a cyclicality to it that allows people to continually be jumping — riding the wave, coming off the wave, starting a new wave, et cetera, and we all know that the only companies that are going to remain competitive are those that can ride the waves of disruption rather than just coping with those waves.

You’re moving towards a question which I was going to ask earlier and I didn’t, about the wave. Now, I’m not a surfer but I know that you don’t always catch the wave correctly and it can end up pretty nastily, so the reason I used that analogy is sometimes, these stretch assignments don’t work and an individual will fail or a team will fail. This is really hard in public companies or in any large hierarchical organization because failure is something that’s not often talked about. What do you see the really good leaders going, how do they think about failure?

What do they do? Right. So, I think the really good leaders say to themselves, “Alright, I’m going to have some — I’m going to push my people and if my people are working really, really hard, then this failure is something that I ask them to do,” and then I’m going to say to them, “You need to get yourself on the beach, get your surfboard and get back in, and get into another wave, and the fact that it didn’t work is okay because it means you were pushing yourself to your limits.” I think what you just alluded to is that we oftentimes say we celebrate failure but that’s usually code for “celebrate my failures; I’ll think about celebrating yours”.

So, an actual leader will create situations where their people have real stretch assignments and if those people are high quality, fully engaged people, when it doesn’t work, they’ll say, “What didn’t work? Let’s figure out what you’re going to do next. Again, that takes a lot of guts but people know how to do it because they do it with their children all the time and most people do have children and so it’s a skill set that we do have but it’s something that we need to foster, I think, much, much more inside of a corporate environment.

Yeah, we often leave it behind when we get to work. But I think the other thing that resonates for me is that the leader, themselves, needs to admit that they failed and that’s very, very hard for people to do once they’ve got to the executive suite. They conveniently forget their failures sometimes, I notice.

Well, I think, Mark, I think it’s hard for us to do because we’re reared – and I talked a little bit about this in the book – that we conflate our sense of self, like the essence of our being, with what happens and, if we can learn to separate those two things out and say, “Okay, I tried something; it didn’t work. But this actually has nothing to do — this is not a referendum on me and my work,” and when we can separate those two out – and the best leaders have separated them out. You’ll ask them, “Well, did you feel embarrassed when this happened in life?” “No, I tried it and it didn’t work.” So, if you can find more people that don’t have shame around failure, those people are going to go a long ways in your organization.

Whitney, I’ll make explicit something that is implicit throughout the book. The book is based on developing a level of self-awareness which is somewhat rare in the workplace and I think you’re shining a light on that and, of course, once you’ve become self-aware, you can’t become unaware and that is one of the building blocks of this whole process, I think.

That’s right and I’m glad that you — no one’s ever quite described it that way so I love that you’ve sort of became aware of it and described it that way. That’s lovely.

So, let’s just talk about the model at the organizational level because we started by saying you brought the model from product into self. Now, from self to organization, sitting down with a chief executive or a leader of an R&D function, for instance, what kind of conversation would you have with them about helping them innovate and sustain innovation in their company?

So, going back to my original premise is that the fundamental unit of disruption is the individual. What I find is that, as I sit down with a CEO and say, “Okay, here’s my view and let’s present these frameworks to your executive team,” and then, as I present the frameworks, go through each of the seven variables that I talk about as accelerants along the S-curve. As we open up these conversations and people start thinking about it, “Okay, so how am I taking on market versus competitive risk both from my team, with my products, for me as an individual, and am I really playing to my strengths and in what ways am I actually entitled?” because that’s one of the big a-ha’s that people have is they realize, “Oh, I thought it was just Millennials that were entitled,” then they realize, “Oh, I’m entitled too because the research says the more successful we are, the more we think we deserve our success,” so the more senior you get, the more entitled you get.

So, what ends up happening is that you have this conversation, all of the — there’s a lot of brilliance and a lot of ideas that are just residing in the brains and the hearts of the key management, and so this notion of personal disruption allows you to sort of break out the crustiness and the gridlock that’s happening so that those ideas can kind of float to the top and actually get executed on.

Once you’ve created that frame or reframed the situation, there’s a lot of stuff in the book which, while it works at the individual level, clearly it would work at the organizational level as well.

They do and it’s really exciting to see when people have those a-ha’s in a setting that allows for these conversations across silos. You start realizing it may be as simple as, “Oh, I wasn’t getting buy-in for my idea from X, Y, and Z person, now let’s have that conversation,” and it’s incredibly difficult to do but it’s very simple as well.

Simple but, as you said, not necessarily easy to do.

Simple on the other side of complexity as, I think, Albert Einstein said.

So, we’re beginning to wrap this up. You’ve gone from a top-ranked Wall Street analyst to running money on the other side of the table to actually becoming an entrepreneur and an author. So you’re practicing what you preach. This has been, to use your language, I guess, something of a discovery driven career. So, how important is curiosity and more importantly, where do you go to keep fresh and stimulated and continuing to push the shores of your knowledge, if you like?

Great question. A couple places. Number one is I go – you’re going to laugh – I go to my own personal experience and the experiences that I’m having in trying to be a mother and a wife and a friend. I mean, there’s so much — and my individual interactions with people on a daily basis, the sort of introspection thing. There’s so much fodder for growth in that respect.

And I think the other thing that I do is I try to sort of eat my own cooking when it – which is kind of funny that I’m saying that because I don’t cook anything other than chocolate chip cookies – but I try to eat my own cooking in a way of opening up my network and reading lots of different authors and ideas and people. Like right now, I just finished reading a book called “On Combat,” which is about people in the military and how they deal with killing and what that looks like and that’s been really, really fascinating for me, something that I would never experience myself and so just always trying to find ideas from lots of different places and stories and anytime I talk to a person like, “What’s your story?” and trying to just figure out how all these different pieces come together. That’s, I think, the way that I most try to keep myself fresh and up to date.

It’s not a book I’ve read. Who’s the author of “On Combat?”

You know what, I’ll look it up. Keep talking to me and I’ll tell you. I have it on my Kindle and when you have something on your Kindle, I think it’s — just keep going and I’ll tell you in just a second.

Yeah, I must say, I listened to your book when I was running and it was great because I like to do two or three things at the same time but when I came to actually start developing a précis and preparing for this conversation, I found that absolutely really frustrating because a book, you can actually flick through very quickly but you can’t do that on an audio at all, which is a shame.

Exactly. So, here’s the — it’s called “On Combat” and it’s by Dave Grossman and Loren Christensen. It’s excellent.

Okay, so you bet we’ll shove that in the show notes. So, before I come to the last three questions which I sent out to you in advance, what’s next for you, Whitney?

So, I’m working on my next book and I’m sure you’re not going to be surprised at all to discover that I’ve had a lot of people say to me, “Okay, so fantastic, now I know how to disrupt myself but how do I help someone else disrupt, whether inside of an organization or otherwise.” So, I’m working on that book right now and it’s really interesting and I’m excited about it and my goal is to have something out in 2017. How’s that for aggressive?

So, is that the beginning or the end of 2017?

Probably the end.

It’s obviously a work in progress but can you say a little bit more about — when you say “helping others,” is it more of a coaching book? Is it more of a business book?

It’s more of a business book. So, again, this idea of people are responding to this as, “Okay, here’s what I do for myself,” and, oftentimes, they think, “For my career,” but then as they go into companies, they’re like, “Okay, so what does this really look like? How do I do this if I’m a manager? How do I do this if I’m running a team? What does this look like? How do I create the conditions wherein I can help people disrupt and then, in so doing, drive innovation?” So, just taking it, sort of looking at the other side of the coin of this.

And, disrupt, will that remain the magic word because there is this sort of breathlessness coming from Uber and Google on the West Coast, Silicon Valley. I’m sitting here in Switzerland, as you know. There’s a lot of long-established companies like Nestlé, like Novartis, like Syngenta for which disruption might not necessarily be a reality. It’s more of a sustaining innovation sort of energy they have. So, I’m just curious whether the subject matter will focus on the industrial long life cycle companies that might well be around for many years to come?

Absolutely. Absolutely. Because, I mean, if you think about it, this whole idea if you’re driving innovation through — I mean, let me come back to one example. I was in a very large corporation – it’s like a Fortune 50 – and I asked the question once we identified what their sort of superpowers, their distinctive strengths where I said, “How many of you are using those strengths every day at work?” 5% raised their hands. Can you imagine in a company like a Nestlé, if you can get that even up to 20%, what gets unleashed in terms of innovation and creativity in that organization, it would be — that drive is not to just sustaining innovations. That drive is to real disruption and the courage to come up with these interesting ideas and test them and iterate against them and just see where the organization goes next.

So, this sounds like a fascinating addition to the management thinking in this area.  What you’ve done with this book is you’ve woven in the disciplines of neuroscience, of behavioral finance, of hardcore business management thinking, but also, from that point of view, it’s a very, very rich book because it puts the individual right at the heart of the story which I think is quite sort of liberating and also very relevant, of course, for the Millennials that you talked about earlier on.

Yeah. Thank you.

So, Whitney, three last questions. First one is: what are your morning rituals?

So, I recently read this book not too long ago called “The 5 A.M. Miracle” and I used to always get up when I was in high school and college at like 6 a.m. or earlier to practice piano for three hours a day and so I’m trying to reinstitute that, and so my morning rituals when I first get up are to try not to check my email immediately, if I’m being completely honest, and to do something that’s sort of inward facing, whether it’s reading scriptures or just reading something that helps me – however someone wants to describe it – get in touch with our essence or get in touch with God and just kind of ground and center myself.

Then, the second thing I do is the hardest thing that I have to do for the day, I do that first. If it’s like working on a speech, prepping a speech, writing something that’s really tough, I try to get that done by 8 or 9, because if I do then the rest of the day goes really well. If I don’t, not so much.

Okay, brilliant. Second question: what have you changed your mind about recently?

Well, I alluded to it earlier, this whole cookie and sugar thing which has been kind of a really big deal for me and I changed my mind about that recently where I made the decision and in part on the back of a daughter who was prodding me that I am not eating any sugar, any cookies, candy, cake, or Diet Coke for all of 2016 and I’ve changed my mind because, a year ago, I would never have done that and it’s been a really important in not only in terms of, yeah, I’ve lost a few pounds, but in terms of my productivity, in terms of my mood swings, it’s just been quite a liberating experience.

Yeah, I mean, it’s fascinating how a minor change of an objective level like that can actually — can be a game changer or it could be a multiplier in terms of freeing up all sorts of other resources that you weren’t aware were being constrained in the first place.

Yeah, exactly. In fact, I had written a piece called How Sugar is “Holding You Back at Work” as kind of a warm up and it’s really — it’s astonishing, actually.

And third question, what advice would you have for your 25-year-old self?

Two pieces I would say. The first is to just not be so scared. I just feel like when I was 25, I was so scared of so many things and I would battle through the fear and just to just be more — know it’s going to be okay. And I think part of the reason that I think I have — if it’s scary and lonely, you’re on the right track because a disruptor, by definition, is playing where no one else is playing. I think if I had known that like it’s supposed to be a little bit scary and it’s supposed to be a little bit lonely because that means you’re forging your own path. I wish I would have known that or could give myself that advice.

The second thing I would say, and I guess I really actually did follow this advice, is that if you don’t — in the absence of knowing what to do, just take the thing, the job, the opportunity. It will open more doors, not less, once you’re finished because when you’re in your 20s and even your 30s, you’re very much at the low end of your life’s curve and you want to be opening up possibilities and so you take the possibilities, all other things being equal, that are going to open more doors, not less.

Yeah, wonderful. It’s really interesting because everyone answers that question differently but most people tend to say the same thing at the end in the final analysis, which is really interesting.

What is the thing they say? Don’t be afraid?

Yeah, don’t be afraid, go for it. There’s “the world is a rich place”, and it’s really just getting into the game. It’s partly the Steve Jobs or the Woody Allen thing, 80% of life is showing up. But it could also be that the people who we’re talking to are a certain level or stage in their lives and they’re probably harking back to what it was like back then and how different the world felt.

You just said something and it made me think of something else and I don’t know that I would give myself this advice because I followed it but, to the extent that you decide to get married, marry well. I’ve seen a lot of people in their 40s and 50s who are now sort of reaping the fruits of having not chosen a good life partner and I think that that’s — it’s such a — you know, we talk about making good business decisions. That’s like the best business decision. The most important business decision you make is like who you decide to marry.

Absolutely. So, where can people get in touch with you, Whitney?

Well, I have a website, whitneyjohnson.com. I have a newsletter that I send out twice weekly — or not twice weekly. Wow, that would be intense. Twice a month and so if you’re interested, you could just email me at [email protected] and I’ll sign you up and then you can follow me either on Twitter @johnsonwhitney or on LinkedIn.

Super, and we’ll put all of those links into the show notes. So, Whitney, it’s been a great pleasure having you on the show. I’m sure our audience enjoyed it as much as I did and thanks very much for your time today.

Thank you. It has been a pleasure.

Whitney Johnson is the author of Disrupt Yourself and a contributor to the Harvard Business Review. Whitney is best known for her work on driving corporate innovation through personal disruption. She discusses the four things that help you know whether you’re on the right or wrong S curve and shares examples of how to disrupt a constraint in a company environment. Tune in for more insightful advice from Whitney!

  • [02:50] – Why did Whitney write Disrupt Yourself?
  • [05:35] – Whitney touches on the emotional side of the job, when you first get brought on to a company.
  • [07:35] – Are you on the low-end of the curve or simply on the wrong curve?
  • [07:55] – Are you taking the right kinds of risks?
  • [08:35] – Play to your strengths. We often undervalue them.
  • [10:35] – You will get on the wrong curve, but that doesn’t mean it can’t benefit you.
  • [11:25] – Constraints can be a good thing when you’re trying to disrupt.
  • [12:55] – Whenever you ask people to adopt a brilliant idea, you’re asking them to jump to a new curve.
  • [15:35] – How do you really take advantage of constraints? Whitney shares an example.
  • [20:40] – What are good leaders doing to create innovation?
  • [24:15] – What do good leaders do in times of failure?
  • [27:30] – How would Whitney help an executive innovate?
  • [30:20] – How important is curiosity and where do you go to get the proper stimulation?
  • [32:20] – What’s next for Whitney?
  • [34:30] – Whitney asked employees, at a Fortune 50, how many of them were using their strengths every day at w
  • [35:55] – What are your morning rituals?
  • [37:00] – What has Whitney changed her mind about recently?
  • [38:00] – What advice would Whitney give to her 25-year-old self?


Mark Bidwell

Mark Bidwell

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