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The difference between internal disruption and uninspired optionality

And the time that Clay Christensen told me my idea was dumb.

There’s nothing quite like having a genius call you dumb. Clay Christensen, the progenitor of the Disruptive Innovation framework, did exactly that to me when he gave a talk at the HubSpot office back in 2011.

After he explained his framework and the dangers of disruption coming from the low-end of a market, I asked him if a company should just invest heavily in defending the low-end of their markets with price slashing, aggressive marketing campaigns, and the like. “That’s dumb” were, I believe, his exact words.

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Instead of using its core competencies and resources to defend the low-end of a market, the company should instead focus on being the disruptor that it fears. IBM did this with Project Chess in the 1980s and it’s a core reason why they’re still around today.

I was enamored with Christensen’s admonition (seriously, it was an honor to have him call my idea dumb), and I heard him loud and clear — defending the low-end of the market is not a disruption-prevention strategy. Got it.

Where was Clay Christensen to tell me my idea was dumb just a few years later when, once again, I completely misunderstood disruption theory?

Uninspired compromise disguised as internal disruption

Inbound.org is an online community for marketing professionals started by Dharmesh Shah and Rand Fishkin. In 2015, I was leading the HubSpot team responsible for growing this vibrant platform. We had several directions in which we could take the project, for example:

  • Quora for marketers
  • Industry-specific profiles
  • Reddit for marketing news
  • Indeed-esque jobs board especially for inbound professionals, etc.

But, obviously, we could only focus on one at a time.

I generally pride myself on my ability to focus. The most difficult challenge facing entrepreneurial leaders when they see two billion-dollar opportunities is to focus on one maniacally while ignoring the other entirely. When I delivered that line at a startup event in Istanbul, I was told about a Confucian aphorism:

“He who chases two rabbits catches neither.”

As a team, we decided to focus on professional profiles, but I just couldn’t let go of the jobs board idea. At that year’s INBOUND event in Boston, a woman came up to the inbound.org booth and emotionally thanked us for our existing basic jobs board that helped her find a new job that she absolutely loved. It was an incredibly emotional high point for our team.

So I gave one person on my team who was particularly passionate about the jobs board idea the mandate to work on it on her own. I gave her a budget, but told her that the core team would not support any of her efforts because I knew how important it was for them to focus. I told her that if she could figure out how to make it work that we would consider making it a core priority. This was a skunkworks project and she was my internal disruption team of one.

She attacked the challenge enthusiastically and did well — but was quickly frustrated. My engineers and growth marketers did as they were told and didn’t help her — they focused on the content aggregation and profiles projects.

Despite her passion for the project, or more likely because of her passion, she eventually quit. I had set her up to fail.

What I did wrong

I fooled myself into thinking that I had her working on a super-cool internal disruption project. What I had really done was make her the victim of my own uninspired optionality. I couldn’t let go of the jobs board idea, and so I wasted resources and time chasing two rabbits.

I made three big mistakes:

  1. An actual skunkworks team must be able to operate wholly independent and empowered to integrate their findings into the core model. To use the McKinsey verbiage, they have to be able to freely function and cluster in the Third Horizon but have the ability to move closer to the Second Horizon when they need to. If you can’t give them those resources, you’re not being an innovative leader — you’re falling victim to uninspired optionality.
  2. Although I gave her a budget and my enthusiastic support, I had set the project up to fail by having its fate be tied too closely to the core project. The jobs board wasn’t far enough from what we were doing to be a skunkworks project and she could not have been successful without help from the core team or a wholly separate core team of her own. It’s difficult to overstate this point: If the project is a sustaining innovation that the core team could be doing if they simply had more bandwidth, it’s not “internal disruption.”
  3. I used the language of “internal disruption” and “innovation” to cover for my failure to focus. Like many leaders today, Christensen’s research made me obsessed with internal disruption teams — but I didn’t make one. I made a "team" that was just off the core business and without resources because I was worried that someone else might build a jobs board and box me out of that market segment.

Leaders who know the importance of focus hide the fact that we don’t want to give up on a pet strategy (Uninspired Optionality) under the self-rationalization of delivering value to overserved market segments (Internal Disruptive Innovation).

I see this happen with other leaders and hope they’ll learn from my failure: It’s better to let an idea go unpursued than to keep the option open and draining resources without an actual chance of success.


Keeping your options open may make you a good politician, but a bad business leader.

This post was originally published on Medium.

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