July: Disrupt Yourself

by Whitney Johnson

Book Description

“Thinkers50 Management Thinker of 2015 Whitney Johnson wants you to consider this simple, yet powerful, idea: disruptive companies and ideas upend markets by doing something truly different–they see a need, an empty space waiting to be filled, and they dare to create something for which a market may not yet exist.  As president and cofounder of Rose Park Advisors’ Disruptive Innovation Fund with Clayton Christensen, Johnson used the theory of disruptive innovation to invest in publicly traded stocks and private early-stage companies. In Disrupt Yourself, she helps you understand how the frameworks of disruptive innovation can apply to your particular path, whether you are:  a self-starter ready to make a disruptive pivot in your business a high-potential individual charting your career trajectory a manager looking to instill innovative thinking amongst your team a leader facing industry changes that make for an uncertain future  We are living in an era of accelerating disruption; no one is immune. Johnson makes the compelling case that managing the S-curve waves of learning and mastery is a requisite skill for the future. If you want to be successful in unexpected ways, follow your own disruptive path. Dare to innovate. Do something astonishing. Disrupt yourself.”

Book Club Review

Thanks for being a part of the Modern Leadership Monthly Book Club. If you happened upon this page and are not a member you can join for free here .

The book club is designed to explore books that will help us on our leadership journey. It is a part of the Modern Leadership Podcast where we breakdown a book weekly in each episode. You can catch the podcast here.

This month’s book is Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work by Whitney L. Johnson

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Brief Summary

After an unlikely career in investments at a large New York Firm, Whitney Johnson went on to team up with the innovation and disruption expert Clayton Christensen. The time working with him resulted in a deep understanding of how disruption occurs and the difference that it can make in all industries and all live. This book is a discussion of personal disruption and the impact it can have in your life.

About the author – Whitney Johnson

Whitney Johnson was recognized as one of the world’s most influential management thinkers in 2015, and was a finalist for the Top thinkers on Talent at the biennial Thinkers50 ceremony in London. She is best known for her work on driving corporate innovation through personal disruption.

She is formerly the co-founder of Rose Park Advisors alongside Clayton Christensen, where they invested in and led the $8 million seed round for Korea’s Coupang, currently valued at $5+ billion. Having served as president from 2007-2012, Johnson was involved in fund formation, capital raising, and the development of the fund’s strategy. During her tenure, the CAGR of the Fund was 11.98% v. 1.22% for the S&P 500.

Previously, Johnson was an Institutional Investor-ranked equity research analyst for eight consecutive years, and was rated by Starmine as a superior stock-picker. As an equity analyst, Ms. Johnson’s stocks under coverage included America Movil (NYSE: AMX), Televisa (NYSE: TV) and Telmex (NYSE: TMX), which accounted for roughly 40% of Mexico’s stock exchange.

Johnson is also a frequent contributor to and writer for the Harvard Business Review, and is a Linkedinfluencer. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Disrupt Yourself(TM): Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work (2015) and Dare, Dream Do (2012). She is a prolific speaker on innovation initiatives, and has delivered keynote speeches to audiences of 30,000+ people on her ideas and vision. Johnson is represented by the New Leaf Speakers bureau, along with other thought leaders on business and innovation.

She has received widespread recognition for her thinking and was named one of Fortune’s 55 Most Influential Women on Twitter in 2014. She co-founded the popular Forty Women Over Forty to Watch and is a fellow at the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards.

You should read this book if:

  • You are looking for outside the box thinking
  • You are wondering if there are ways to disrupt your current role/position
  • You like business books with practical stories and implementable strategies
  • You like books tat profile “lesser known” case studies and examples

Who shouldn’t read this book

  • You believe the status quo should stay the status quo
  • You fear change and don’t want to challenge long standing convention
  • You prefer books that focus on well know business leaders and their styles

What surprised me

I fell immediately in love with this book. My mind is constantly turning. I like to think of ways to do what has been done differntly (better). I seek constant improvement and this book inspired so many great ideas. It also validated my desire for disruption.

This book is not a “take risks” and “throw caution to the wind”, it is very practical approach to looking at problems and offers alternate thinking to tackles those problems.

Whitney Johnson joined me on episode 24 of the Modern Leadership podcast. We talked disruption (of course) and surfing the S curve.


My criticism is fairly minor. The book is packed with disruption ideas and toward the end I ran out of gas. There was sooooo much to consider that I became overwhelmed near the end of the book. I still highly recommend a “complete” reading, just be prepared for idea overload.


  • We’re all equal before a wave. —Laird Hamilton, professional surfer
  • Part of the reason disruption can be so hard to spot is the timing; the growth curve can look totally flat for years, then spike upward very steeply.
  • [D]isrupting yourself is critical to avoiding stagnation, being overtaken by low-end entrants (i.e., younger, smarter, faster workers), and fast-tracking your personal and career growth.
  • [S]even variables that can speed up or slow down the movement of individuals or organizations along the curve, including:
    1. Taking the right risks
    2. Playing to your distinctive strengths
    3. Embracing constraints
    4. Battling entitlement
    5. Stepping back to grow
    6. Giving failure its due
    7. Being discovery driven
  • [T] he first thing you need to ask is, “What is it that I am trying to accomplish?” Or, in other words: What job needs to be done?
  • To develop a new service or bring a new product to market, an innovator applying this theory doesn’t focus on a customer’s age or gender. Instead, she focuses on what problem the customer needs solved, and who or what can be hired to do that job.
  • So for the risk averse who are trying to convince themselves to try something new, the trick is not to focus on what will be gained by venturing forth, but to instead focus on what might be lost by standing still.
  • [M] arket risk is the right kind of risk when you’re looking for a new learning curve to scale.
  • Identify a Job No One Else Can Do For real staying power, it’s important to specialize in such a way that there is no one else doing the job.
  • You’ll know you’re dealing with market risk when you realize there is no one else doing a job that needs to be done.
  • When you make the decision to start something new, first figure out the jobs you want to do. Then position yourself to play where no one else is playing.
  • Disruptors not only look for unmet needs, they match those needs with their distinctive strengths.
  • A distinctive strength is something that you do well that others within your sphere don’t. – Edinger (Harvard Business Review) “How to Make Yourself Indispensable.”
  • Once you have a clear picture of your one-of-a-kind skills, you can match those skills to unmet needs. Consider jobs where you’d be the wild-card candidate. Or look for ways to combine your passions. Look at problems that the organization needs solved, and ask yourself: Can I fix that?
  • Now that you’ve got a handle on your distinctive strengths and have found an unmet need, it’s time to disrupt, right? Unfortunately, at the low end of the curve, you’re so overwhelmed by new tasks, new people, and new information that finding the right unmet need to fit your unique confluence of skills can be very difficult.
  • Sometimes you are on the wrong curve.
  • “When I chose writing over acting, I didn’t give up on a dream, I gave up on my choice of vehicle used to deliver the dream. Dreams are not like spleens, there’s not just one per person.”
  • Fast feedback is also useful when it comes to identifying your distinctive strengths.
  • Constraints can be the perfect remedy if you are having a difficult time focusing or are unable to clarify how you want to disrupt yourself.
  • Of course we all need at least some resources to get going. You can’t bootstrap without straps or boots.
  • When you come upon a constraint, instead of thinking, “I can’t because,” focus instead on how the problem can be solved, beginning every statement with “I can, if….”
  • As we move into the growth phase of our learning curve and gain more confidence, entitlement is a risk we all face.
  • If you want to keep innovation alive, look for ways to combine something old with something new.
  • [H]igh-performing companies, those that surpass their peers on financial metrics across business cycles and leadership eras, are those that develop capabilities before they need them.
  • [I]f as an individual you’ve reached the top rung of the ladder you’re climbing, it’s time to find a new ladder
  • To avoid a dangerous fall, make sure the curve you want to jump to involves the right risks for you and leverages your distinctiveness. The whole point of disruption is to move up the y-axis of success, however you define success, over the x-axis of time. When you disrupt yourself, you are making a conscious decision to move down the y-axis, leaving a comfortable perch, possibly with pay and status taking a hit, on the premise that the slope of your next curve will be even steeper, leading to another period of rapid growth up the success curve. Just make sure you’re not jumping onto the wrong grid.
  • When you are willing to do the hard work of asking what should be measured, you can measure almost anything.
  • It’s called the equal odds rule. If you want to write a frequently cited paper, publish a lot. If you want a successful business, get to work. If you want to sharpen your skills as a disrupter, disrupt. A simple metric: show up and keep showing up.
  • Liz Strauss said, “It’s not possible for the world to hold a meeting to decide your value. That decision is all yours.”
  • Samuel Johnson: the ultimate result of all ambition is to be happy at home.
  • Fighting feels better than failing.
  • “Fear of failure, resulting from often unrealistic and perfectionist demands [is] one of the key detractors from learning, leading to lack of creativity and procrastination.
  • I have observed several responses that seem to ameliorate failure, transforming it into a stepping-stone to future success. Recognize That It’s Not a Matter of If, but When
  • We frequently applaud failure in theory, but the dirty little secret is that it makes all of us feel at least a little ashamed.
  • Failure itself doesn’t limit dreaming and personal innovation—shame does.
  • It’s important to dream, and it’s important to know when to find a new dream.
  • As a trailblazer, even though you may have a goal or purpose, your path to that objective is yet to be marked. It is unrealistic to believe that you can get there without a detour or two; flexibility becomes an important attribute. Hence, disruptors have to be driven by discovery.
  • “Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.”3 Matching problems to your strengths isn’t just about being rewarded by monetary compensation but also by the joy of following a true vocation. But often, you discover what that calling is one baby step at a time.
  • If you do something disruptive today, then the probability that you can be disruptive tomorrow increases. Momentum creates momentum.

My Key Key Key Takeaway

  • My key: Fail Fast [Fail Faster]

As I reviewed this book, the key that jumped out to me, for my personal business and growth is to fail more often and to fail faster. The idea is that if I “try”something, it will either work or it will not work. If it works – awesome move forward with extra time to make it better. If it does not work – at least you found out before pouring too much time and money into the project. You can now change direction and disrupt a different industry or with a different project.

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Podcaster | Speaker | Leadership Mentor

Jake Carlson is a popular speaker, accountability partner, and host of the Modern Leadership podcast. Jake built his business while traveling with his family around the world. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn. Read more about him here.