The DNA of Disruption

Marketing and New Business

In October 2017, we hosted a special Psychology of Brand Experience breakfast where we invited special guests Sandra Schembri, CEO of House of St Barnabas, Janis Thomas, Marketing Director at Birchbox, Rich Westman, Founder of Kaido Group and Inez Miedema, Head of Partnerships and Affliliates at TransferWise to join a discussion panel led by Rufus Strategy Consultant Charlotte Beckett on what it takes to be a ‘disruptor brand.’ 

A popular definition of Disruption is “changing consumer behaviours and industry practices, not just innovating products and services”.  A good disruptor brand goes beyond creating revolutionary experiences for customers, to changing the norms, habits and beliefs in their sector. But what do you need to do that? A vision to start, a tolerance for risk when things get tough and stable foundation of people who are up for the challenge. So how do you make sure your teams have got what it takes to be disruptive?


First up, the people

“Here’s to the crazy ones …

…the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes.  The ones who see things differently - they're not fond of rules. You can agree or disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change things. They push the human race forward.  And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do."

This was the start of Apple’s “Think Different” campaign, written by Steve Jobs.  An inspirational description of disruption in itself, the most interesting part of it is Jobs himself, who is a classic example of…


Productive Narcissism

Narcissists have always emerged to inspire people and to shape the future.  ­Productive narcissists understand the vision particularly well, but they aren’t analysers who can break up big questions into manageable bite-size problems, nor do they try to extrapolate to understand the future – instead they focus on creating it.

These free, independent thinkers are rightly proud of their accomplishments, but rather worryingly it appears they don’t always consider others…

Beware the dark side  

Unproductive Narcissists are emotionally isolated and highly distrustful with perceived threats in many areas. Limited and averse to risk – they’re irrational, reactive, superficial, aimless, uncommitted. A must-read book on the topic is “The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership” by Michael Maccoby.

Because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Team personalities

So, while a productive narcissist can focus on the big picture, you need a mix of people to make disruption successful – both the free thinkers and focused doers. A good team needs the right combination of the following people:

 Innovative and disruptive thinkers

Team members who naturally focus on innovation, anticipate problems, and recognise when the team needs to change, they tend to be imaginative, curious, and open to new experiences.


Team members who naturally organise work and take charge tend to be socially self-confident, competitive, and energetic.


Team members who are practical, hard-headed challengers of ideas and theories tend to be prudent, emotionally stable, and level-headed.

Process and rule followers

Team members who pay attention to details, processes, and rules tend to be reliable, organised, and conscientious.


Team members who naturally focus on relationships, are attuned to others’ feelings, and are good at building cohesion tend to be warm, diplomatic, and approachable.


Next, the psychology behind them…

Once you’ve got the right team in your business it’s time to spark collective action and create social capital in your company. When you are taking risks, sharing ideas and suggestions, you also need to feel free to speak out, to react honestly, sometimes against the norm. Fostering the right atmosphere is essential – so that if at first you don’t succeed you have the resilience to keep on disrupting.


Social capital theory

Teams or cultures high in social capital are high in reciprocity and a belief in equality, they’re more likely to work together collectively and effectively, trust each other, share, bargain and respect everyone more. Put simply, they get things done. Research (Tsai & Ghoshal (1998)) has found that social capital theory leads to:


  • Increased social interaction positively relate to trust  
  • Increased levels of shared vision positively relate to trust  
  • Trust and social interaction positively influence collaboration
  • Sharing of resources
  • Collaboration and sharing of resources

Organisations should invest in creating and developing their teams’ social capital.  Informal social relationships and tacit social arrangements can influence productivity. Social networks are powerful predictors of individual and organisational success. A creative space full of bean bags is not. 


Psychological Safety

Ideas really can come from anywhere.  But you also need a culture that values creativity and questioning the status quo.  Psychological safety, or "a shared belief that the team is safe for risk taking." Workplace culture can inspire disruption. Psychological Safety allows people to speak out, say things that are unpopular or go against the norm. Ask yourself: Can people take these risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed? 

Do people feel supported?  Psychological Safety drives effectiveness because it inspires a learning culture – which is beneficial to any organisation.  

How do you create Psychological Safety in your company?

  • Set your framework as learning problems, as opposed to execution problems.
  • Acknowledge your own fallibility, yes, you as a team leader.
  • Be the behaviour you want: ask lots of questions.


It’s proven to work:

  • Boosts employee engagement
  • Increases amount members learn from mistakes
  • Improves team innovation  
  • Improves likelihood that an attempted process innovation will be successful

For ideas on creating a productive and social culture listen to this TED talk by Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School.


If it works for Google…

In 2015, Google were on a quest to build the perfect team.  They found that Psychological Safety leads to better team results. For example, among sales teams, those with high psychological safety exceeded their targets by, on average, 17%. In contrast, those with low psychological safety missed their targets by, on average, 19%. 


Consumers don’t always get it

Estimates show that across product categories 40–90 % of innovations never become a commercial success. The high failure rate of new products and services should not be surprising, as innovation in its very nature requires consumers to accept changes in price, performance, or design. It forces people to change habits and routines, or break with entrenched behaviours and traditions. Innovation means change, and resistance to change is a normal human response. 

Beyond communicating features and benefits, disruption needs to win consumers’ hearts and minds. You could embed every aspect of disruption-enabling organisational culture into your brand and your teams – but if your consumer isn’t ready, disruption won’t stick. Which is where resilience to your vision is needed, remember failure is just another opportunity to improve.