How Top Management Kills Disruptive Innovation: Death by a Thousand Cuts

We often think that innovation is not successful within an organization because top management puts an end to the project or denies the project the means necessary for its development. This happens, but this is rarely the case. Very often, innovation, especially disruptive innovation, dies when the project is discovered by top management, and the latter, for the price of its support, requires that the project fit within the current organization, thereby removing its disruptive aspects.

The most dangerous time for a disruptive innovation project is when top management becomes aware of its existence and, worse still, becomes convinced of the interest of the project. It publicly endorses it, put its full weigh behind it, and even pushes so it succeeds on a large scale. Good news, the crocodiles will be held at distance and the project suddenly has plenty of new friends among the bureaucracy.

Yes, but. For price of its support, top management will ask that the project be “well managed” (I put quotes of course). By “well managed”, management means in fact above all that everything should fall in line. It is true that, born in hiding, the project has often seen its promoters resorting to DIY and effectuation: start small, use available resources, iterate quickly, co-create, etc. All this is not very sexy, not very ‘Blue Ocean’. Also it is too small. How is such a small project going to have a real impact on the turnover? No, we must think big! And in the first place, innovators must hand over the bricolage to ‘real’ managers, and better control its costs. Exit then the handymen and welcome to a true management.

In the logic of streamlining, management will consist of rubbing out everything that makes the project disruptive. Plug into the computer system of the company and stop using open platforms (No more shadow IT!). Rely on the support functions of the organization and reduce the autonomy of the project. Align with the existing offering, be more consistent, etc. Also clarify the vision, as we need to know where we are going.

Death by a thousand cuts (Source: Wikipedia)

Death by a thousand cuts (Source: Wikipedia)

The project, or rather its disruptive dimension, dies of the famous Chinese torture of thousand cuts (Lingchi), which consists in methodically removing portions of the body over an extended period of time, eventually resulting in death. In the end, dozens of small changes, each for perfectly defensible reasons, remodel the project to make it fit into the mold of the current organization.

But these changes transform the project from disruptive to sustaining, that is to say, the project becomes merely an extension of the current business, or more specifically of its current business model, a drift that innovation expert Clayton Christensen calls “cramming”: instead of adapting the organization to the innovation, the innovation is adapted to the existing organization, i.e. it is forced to fit in the existing business model, which by necessity means its distinctive nature is eroded.

The difficulty for the innovator in this death by a thousand cuts is that defending the project requires considerable energy. Like the waves of the sea, the organization never stops coming back for more cuts, and each repelled attack is only a short respite won until the next attack. All attacks cannot be repelled, and some are bound to be successful. It is an uphill battle. The innovator ends up exhausted and is typically ejected from the system in one way or another. To quote the citation of a Netflix document, “Mavericks get exhausted trying to innovate” within the existing organization.

There is no easy solution. Innovators should try to keep their project below top management’s radar as long as possible; They should build support from the ground up, not from top down; and once discovered by top management, they should negotiate what they can give in and what they cannot negotiate, that is, the core of the project.


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