Disruptive Innovation with Creative Problem Solving

Industries are increasingly recognising the importance of going beyond incremental innovation and trying to create a disruptive innovation program. Yet, when I researched the disruptive innovation methodologies, I found no overt link to Creative Problem Solving process, which is obviously a key component of all innovation. It was either inferred in the process or only addressed as part of the behaviours.

Creative Problem Solving is a process and methodology that can be taught and needs to be built into the disruptive innovation process – instead of assuming or inferring that it will be. To resolve this, I have outlined a disruptive innovation process incorporating the 4 Ps of Creativity (Mel Rhodes): Person, Process, Product and Press (environment). This article focuses on the Person.

 What is Disruptive Innovation?

Disruptive innovation is the creation of products, processes or business models that create new categories or even new industries as they fulfil untapped consumer needs. They typically challenge the status quo and make current products or competitors either outdated or irrelevant.

Whilst disruptive innovation can provide new pathways to growth, it is often seen as a threat in organisations because it takes resources from established parts of the firm to pursue opportunities that are risky, uncertain and not aligned to the business’ core competencies (and instead is aligned to its future desired competencies often three to four years out). If companies are serious about disruptive innovation, they must develop the capability for it, appropriately resource and then protect the function. Otherwise, the natural resistance to disruptive innovation will kill it.

Historical Approaches to Disruptive Innovation

Companies have experimented with creating a disruptive innovation process with none having found the silver bullet.  As Table 1 shows, there has been some key learnings from the approaches that have been tried in the past.

Approaches to Breakthrough Innovation Table 1

Method Name Description Key Learnings


Being an entrepreneur in the company


Relies too much on the individual




Small work groups separated from the mainstream organisation


Designed for individual projects, but not for developing a pipeline of disruptive innovation


Corporate Venturing


A firm takes an equity stake in a specialist firm with the objective to gain a specific competitive advantage


Successful financially but didn’t renew the core business, instead provided an alternative revenue stream


Internal Corporate Venturing


Divisions within the company created to innovate in projects that didn’t fit the current business model


Many disbanded as they weren’t seen as delivering new revenues in a timely fashion


What Disruptive Innovation Requires to Thrive  

It takes time, investment and senior organisational support to create a portfolio of disruptive innovation opportunities that can be nurtured to yield commercial returns.

For long-term stability disruptive innovation cannot be the latest fashion as it will always be vulnerable to the next direction of the firm. Instead, it needs to be entrenched in the organisation and treated as seriously as other functions like marketing and finance. However, due to its nascent qualities, it does need senior protection as it requires a longer timeframe in order to bear fruit.

What organisations have done in the past (Table 1) is experimented with different disruptive innovation functions. I am suggesting a process that companies can adopt as they will be able to scale it up or down. This process is linked to the Creative Problem Solving process, as creativity is critical to delivering innovation.


The Difference between Creativity and Innovation

Creative Problem Solving is a critical part of innovation, but people often aren’t clear of the distinct differences between the two.  A definition to use is Theodore Levitt’s classic definition of creativity and innovation: “Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.” Creativity is a meta model of innovation. Without it, you cannot have innovation.

The 4Ps of Creativity: Requirement for Disruptive innovation

In order for a disruptive innovation function to thrive, it is critical that the Four Ps of Creativity are addressed: Person, Process, Product and Press (environment).  The 4Ps represent the nature of creative Persons, the Processes they use, the Products or outcome of their efforts (innovation), and the Press, or environment that supports creativity (Mel Rhodes1961) and is the basis of the disruptive innovation model.

Deliberate Creativity

Some people believe that there are those who are born creative while others are not.  However, research has proven this assertion to be wrong.  Deliberate creativity can be taught. The idea that it can be taught is a recent phenomenon with the first approaches originating between fifty and seventy years ago by Alex Osborn, which forms the backbone of most of the teachings today.

If creativity is not a genetic endowment, what distinguishes individuals who are better at it and how can they be identified to work on disruptive innovation?

Person: The Disruptive Innovation Innovator Profile

To create a disruptive innovation function, you need to find the right people to be on the team – the Person of the 4Ps of Creativity. Research done by Dyer, Gregersen and Christensen identified five discovery skills that disruptive innovators. Most importantly, they are good at “associational thinking.”  They define associational thinking “as the way the brain processes information through integrating patterns, seeing contextual relationships and connecting seemingly unrelated elements to create new ideas with an idea being a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action.”

The other four discovery skills are triggers to associational thinking.  Specifically, disruptive innovators engage in the following behavioural skills more frequently:

  • Questioning: Disruptive innovators show a passion for inquiry with their inquiries frequently challenging the status quo.

  • Observing: They carefully watch the world around them for insights into and ideas for new ways of doing things.

  • Networking: Disruptive innovators do more than spend time testing their ideas through a wide network. They actively search for new ideas by seeking out people who have radically different views. They go beyond talking to people in analogous categories and instead search out people who are changing the status quo, regardless of their industry, and use them as a source of inspiration.

  • Experimenting: Finally, disruptive innovators are constantly experimenting. They are not hampered by fear of failure and are instead driven by the thrill of discovery.  To quote Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Collectively, these five discovery skills form the ideal profile of a disruptive innovator. How well do you stack up?