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Disruptive thinking: Skills to separate you from the competition

Shaun has over 20 years experience in the application of macro and microeconomic insights to significantly improve the organisational and individual performance of client organisations

The theme of the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Davos meeting was the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how automation and digitisation would threaten business models and the need for humans to perform jobs. In the report, entitled: The future of jobs[1]; new skills and capabilities were identified critical for Employee2020 (own term) to remain relevant and not be the “dinosaurs” termed by brothers; Richard and Daniel Susskind, in their book, The future of the profession[2].
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Complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and people management topped the list of skills required for Employee2020. Creativity specifically, leaped from 10th to third position in the 2020 poll. The irony though is that if one scans any business school or training website, there are masses of courses on financial acumen and leadership but very few on these essential skills, often called cross-field outcomes and generally not the focus of traditional development activities. From personal experience as the designer of hundreds of executive development interventions, the need for disruptive thinking (and decision-making) is echoed by every Chief Executive Officer I have engaged. Comments such as: “we did not really understand the problem and could have extracted more value from the strategy” or “our thinking was too slow and cautious and we missed opportunities” are commonplace and increasing.

The process of thinking itself is a bit of an enigma in that it lies at the intersection of human biology, medical science and psychology. For simplicity, I use the process proposed by leading neuro-leadership thinker, Dr David Rock[3], in that cognition is the process of (1) Understanding/ encoding, (2) Memorising, (3) Recalling, (4) Decision-making, and (5) Inhibiting. Thinking relates specifically to the actions of recall and decision-making but is influenced by all five actions.

To develop and sharpen your disruptive thinking skills, the following are six insights and actions I have used to assist executives:

  1. Disruptive thinking begins with empathy: Much has been spoken about empathy as a critical leadership trait but this extends through to disruptive thinking. Entrepreneurs know that if they can solve a critical human need, ease the existence of humans and “take the pain out of doing/being”, they have the cornerstone for a disruptive service or product. To practice this, go and speak to customers of internal clients and understand their 5 key pain points – use that as the basis for disruptive thinking.
  2. Understand that you are hardwired NOT to change and to survive: The process of cognition causes our brain to physically strengthen certain neural pathways to aid the encoding and recall processes. This helps us gain that split second when confronted with the hungry sabre-toothed tiger. A protein substance called myelin thickens dominant pathways and synapses in the brain. Disruptive thinking therefore requires conscious unlearning before re-learning can happen. The act of provocation or surprise (often under pressure) is very effective to challenge dominant logics. Highly realistic simulations and role-plays of hostile takeover bids, loosing a top client or a system failure are all ways of disrupting thinking.
  3. Forget “thinking out of the box”, focus on “building a bigger box”: Experience and imagination together make up the universe of human insight. This intangible asset is what disruptive thinkers draw on in their pursuit of “what is” and “what could be”. Your “box” can be expanded by global travel, exposure to other cultures, new languages, physical exertions, reading other genres, sights, smells and challenge. These are the dots and insights that when woven into structured thought are the roots of a disruptive insight.
  4. Thinking fast and knowing when to think slow: Nobel-winning economist, Daniel Kahneman, in his best seller, Thinking fast and slow, reminds us that as humans we have constructed energy efficient processes to help us with routine tasks called heuristics. The problem comes when we use this process for complex decisions. Making time, energy and focus available is critical to prevent future reflections such as: “Gee, we didn’t see that happening” or “How did we miss that point that derailed our strategy?”
  5. The importance of maps: To think disruptively, people have to expertly understand the system in which they operate. I borrow from the French historian, Fernand Braudel, who wrote that meta-systems generally consist of (1) The surface (in the moment, where most people operate), (2) The system or interconnected world ranging from 1-15 years, and then (3) Deep structure, the largely unchanging constructs that have their origins in culture, demography, history and geography. Expertly understanding the system and identifying unique insights and opportunities is at the heart of disruptive thinking. As a young investment banker, in 1992, Jeff Bezos came across a minor court ruling, in Quillcorp versus North Dakota. This case ruled that companies should only pay tax where they have physical premises. This deep insight was critical to his thinking of establishing an e-commerce business that could be cost competitive to traditional retailers by being established in a low tax jurisdiction.
  6. It’s not just about you: Despite our obsession with figure-head leaders and disruptors, it is really about the collection of people around the idea that delivers the disruptive thinking. Critical to enable this are skills such as trust, candour, respect and accepting diverse inputs. The ability to harness diverse insights and feedback from others while destroying old plans and exploring new ways of doing to deliver the best results is critical. As one example, read the history of WhatsApp, and the founders Brian Acton and Jan Koum’s journey from leaving Yahoo in 2007 to receiving seed funding from Sequoia Capital in 2011. The creative destruction process would have made Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, very impressed.

I hope that this article provides you with six provocations to challenge your disruptive thinking. Naturally, there are many sub-skills that look at personal effectiveness to help biological thinking. The best tool for you is: Your brain at work, by Dr David Rock, and: Neuroscience for Leadership, by MIT’s Dr Tara Swart. These sources provide a myriad of tools to help one think better in this fast and encroaching world.

[1] World Economic Forum. 2015. The Future of Jobs report. Access:
[2] Susskind, R. and Susskind, D., 2015. The future of the profession: How technology will transform the work of human experts. London: Oxford University Press.
[3] Rock, D. 2009. Your brain at work. New York: Harper Business.
Shaun Rozyn
Consulting Economist | Disruptive Thinker | Business School Faculty

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