Companies should appoint "chief disruption officers" to lead innovative thinking that will help them stay ahead of competitors, keynote speaker David Roberts told attendees at the MHI Annual Conference on Tuesday.
Only disruptive thinking can help companies avoid the fate of Finnish cell phone giant Nokia, which ruled its sector for years by making inexpensive flip phones, but was quickly made irrelevant by Apple Computer Inc.'s launch of the large-screen iPhone in 2007, said Roberts, who is a faculty member at Silicon Valley think tank Singularity University, chairman at drone services company HaloDrop, and chairman at quantum computing firm 1QBit.
Revolutionary technology can strike any industry, but leaders must be able to distinguish between mere innovations—which are ways of making existing things better—and true disruptions—which are so radically new that they make previous platforms obsolete, Roberts said in his talk, "Responding to disruption; 12 actions to take this month."
Many firms find it difficult to react to such broad changes due to a "corporate permafrost" or resistance to change, Roberts said. One way senior managers can battle that inertia is to hire a millennial as a mentor, asking the younger employee to teach the elder about opaque issues like why they use the Snapchat social media platform or why they prefer to buy products from certain brands, said Roberts.
Unless they learn to think flexibly, business leaders will not be able to predict disruptive change, which can strike from any direction, he said. Disruption can arrive as the result of steep cuts in cost, such as the drop in solar cells from $76.67 per watt of electricity produced in 1977 to just $0.36 per watt in 2014, he said.
Change can also come from huge improvements in power, such as the growing ability of artificial intelligence (AI) to perform complex tasks, from diagnosing human diseases to calculating driving routes, said Roberts.