Disruptive technologies and the myth of the magic bullet

Disruptive technologies and the myth of the magic bullet

We would all love to replicate success and when we see new and innovative ideas that disrupt the established order it’s exciting to think that we can replicate it. But how do you do that? What’s the secret sauce to success?

We’ve all heard successful people say how their success was as a result of hard work. They deserve their success. They’ve earned it they say. But if it were true that hard work inevitably led to success, that would mean that those who are less successful work less hard. This is palpably untrue. Being in the right place at the right time, having a head start because of the country you grew up in or as a result of your parentage, possessing wealth and good health are all factors in becoming successful – and so is hard work – but the most important factor of all is good luck. Taking a success story and seeking to reverse engineer it to see how it can be replicated is like speaking to a group of lottery winners and asking them how they did it.

Purchasing Insight logoThe relationship between hard work and success is overrated just like following your dream is for aspiring entertainers. It’s the cliché that’s rolled out by celebrity judges on TV talent shows: “If you believe it enough, it will happen”. This is not just the Peter Pan flying fantasy. There is a certain kind of logic in it if you look at the careers of successful performers. They have a talent and passion but most of all they have a single-minded determination to get to the top. It’s not unusual for them to say that as far back as they can remember, they always knew that they wanted to be on a stage or in movies or playing in a concert hall. You may not be able to achieve the dream without that strong and determined self-belief but it doesn’t follow that self-belief will make dreams come true.

There is another modern myth that is very popular just now that we would all like to believe. It’s the one about disruptive technologies and how we can all have a great idea that will change the world. We don’t even need to know much about the industry we want to disrupt – even a teenager can do it. It’s great when we hear about a 17 year old selling their iPhone app to a technology giant for $millions. It’s what we wish we could have done.

There are theories that explain the correlation between youth, inexperience and innovation. Inexperience, indeed naiveté, can be advantageous when you want to challenge established business models. Being too familiar with the old ways of doing things acts as a constraint to imaginative thinking. But the connection is imaginary. The really exciting examples of young innovators are the exceptions that prove the rule – the rule that says that you need to understand your industry intimately to know how to change it. Sorry. It’s boring. But it’s true.

Erin Griffith wrote in Pandodaily this week about this very phenomenon explaining that there is a secret behind many of the tech start-up stories. They didn’t just happen through a bright idea. There is no magic bullet. There was inspiration born out of experience behind them.

“BuzzFeed’s secret” she wrote “is that sharing is the future of content distribution. Founder Jonah Peretti earned that through his own viral successes — BlackPeopleLoveUs.com, the Nike Sweatshop incident, the Rejection Hotline.

“Nest’s secret is that people will adopt smart thermostats not necessarily for the environmental impact, but because for their beautiful design. Founder Tony Fadell earned that secret designing beautiful hardware at Apple.

“Asana’s secret is that collaboration and tools should be robust and easy to work with. Dustin Moskovitz earned that while managing a huge team at Facebook.”

Some of the successful start-ups stories are great. They can make you believe that anyone, even a teenager or a young graduate with little or no experience can make it big. And that’s inspiring – but behind all (or at least most) of the stories are the untold tales – untold tales of graft, experience, luck and insight that led the founders to recognize a viable alternative to the status quo. It should be no less inspiring that that’s the case.

Pete Loughlin can be found on twitter @peteloughlin

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