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Using Personal Disruption to Build an A-Team: Q+A with Author Whitney Johnson

Cornerstone Editors

Innovation comes in many forms—design thinking, traditional R&D, exploring a new market. And it can be a key part of organizational growth, helping to boost customer satisfaction or the development of new products. One powerful form of innovation in business is disruptive innovation, the idea that companies can displace an existing market with an innovation that fills a need for a new population of consumers.

Author Whitney Johnson had a theory that disruptive innovation, which is typically applied to products and services, could also be applied to people. In her first book Disrupt Yourself, she applies disruptive innovation to an individual level, giving people a framework for how and when to execute innovative change in their lives.

In her latest book, Build an A-Team, Johnson turns the lens of personal disruption to organizations, exploring how this framework can be used to build great teams. We sat down with Johnson to learn more about how leaders can drive high performance, build morale and increase engagement all while transforming themselves into a manager people want to work for.

How can companies get things done while dedicating time to helping their talent grow?

The first thing is to recognize that every single person in your company is a learning machine. We like the challenge of not knowing how to do something, figuring out how to do it, mastering it and then doing that process over and over again.

Every person is on a learning curve: for the first six months, they aren't going to know what they're doing, for the second year to three years they are really going to know what they're doing and be highly engaged and when they get to three-and-a-half or four years, they will master what they are doing.

How do you manage people in different areas of the learning curve?

On the low end of the curve, don't get impatient when your people don't know how to do things or when they ask questions like 'Why do we do it like this?' Realize that this is an opportunity for innovation.

Based on our research, you want about 70 percent of the people on your team to be in the sweet spot—when you know enough but not too much. This is the time where you want to give people stretch assignments. And don't be afraid to appreciate them.

To your people at the high end—that's where they know what they are doing—it's okay for them to be there for awhile, maybe six months to one year. You want to memorialize and celebrate what they've accomplished and encourage them to give you a strong finish. But once you get there, that is the danger zone because they are getting bored. And when you're bored you don't innovate.

What do you do when employees reach the boredom point?

You have to find something new for them to do. It doesn't necessarily mean they have to change jobs or even roles, but they need a new project, a new team configuration or a new boss so they can go back to that level and where they don't know what they're doing. Then, you have that process of learning, leaping and repeating starting all over again. That's where people are going to do their best work.

How can managers and employees have conversations to identify these opportunities?

It's not entirely the manager's responsibility and it's not entirely the employee's responsibility. One of the first things you can do when a person starts to work for you is sit down and have a conversation about your organization and team and what you're trying to get done. Ask, 'Why did you feel if you worked for me you could bring your dreams to work and what are those dreams?' The boss needs to initiate, but the employee needs to also be thinking strategically about other ways they can contribute to the organization.

Photo: Creative Commons

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