Decide on disruption

It’s said that within 7 years, 75% of Fortune 500 companies will be firms we haven’t even heard of yet. This is why the future belongs to disruptors. An ever-quickening pace of change means you’ll need to be a disruptor, manage a disruptor or model a disruptor. They’re the ones satisfying an endless appetite for innovation determining our tomorrows.

It’s why entrepreneur, anthropologist and author, Mike Maddock, was invited to speak at our March McGuffin Mornings event. Using examples from his latest book, Plan D. How to Dream, Drive and Deliver, Mike shared lessons from some of the world’s most successful disruptors, along with a few superhero powers they all seem to have in common:

  • Using simple frameworks to transform their thinking
  • Knowing their ghosts to measure themselves against that “chip on their shoulder”
  • Finding balance to empower both the visionary and the necessary

Among many valuable takeaways, we begin with a personal tale of Mike’s that gets to the heart of disruption’s potential.

Fortune favors the bold.

It was Mike Maddock’s first day as an art director at his first job out of college. As staff introductions were made, Mike was dumbstruck by Ruth McCausland, an individual he was certain he would eventually marry. Only Ruth was in a five-year relationship with another guy.

Mike waited patiently for the right opportunity. One day a fellow coworker with a birthday approaching announced, “We’re ordering Chinese food.”

Mike saw his opening and hatched a plan.

His elaborate scheme included buying bulk fortune cookies, carefully pulling out the fortunes with tweezers, and replacing them with “pro-Mike” messages. After the meal, Mike’s associates opened their fortunes, revealing messages such as “Date Mike,” “Choose Mike,” “Mike would be nice.”

How did Mike’s bold move work? Mike and Ruth have been married for more than 28 years.

The story illustrates how deep Mike’s own disruption roots run. In his own words, “I was a disruptive employee. I was a disruptive client. I’m an expert at causing trouble.”   

The birth of Crest Whitestrips and the value of “getting outside the jar.”

About 15 years ago, Mike’s firm was hired by Proctor & Gamble to help them launch a new product they wanted dentists to sell in-office. Upon pitching ideas touting the advantages of a revolutionary teeth-whitening technology, the dentists flatly rejected the concept because they didn’t see the value.

One of Mike’s favorite sayings is “You can’t read the label if you’re sitting inside the jar.” His audience strongly believed preventing gum disease and saving teeth to be more important than teeth whitening. To them, they were the experts and didn’t see teeth whitening as anything that would create new revenue channels for them.

What happened? The dentists were in the jar. Also known as the expertise trap. It means the more they knew about their situation from the inside, the harder it was to see the possibility that had walked right in front of them. They didn’t care.

But P&G knew their customers would. A lot. So rather than partner with the dentists, they decided to sell direct. The product they were working on? Crest Whitestrips.

At the time the dentists rejected the idea, teeth whitening was a $4 billion dollar opportunity. Today it’s an $11 billion dollar category. “Being an expert sometimes compels us to go with what we know,” Mike relates, “to hang on tight to convention.”

Why not let go for a better grip instead? It’s about shifting one’s thinking and responding differently. That’s what disruptors do.

Critical vs. lateral thinking; simple frameworks.

Using lateral thinking, people tend to come up with a slew of ideas that diverge from the norm. Using critical thinking, we tend to stay focused more on safe, evolutionary steps. Both approaches are important, but it’s the degree to which they’re applied and combined that makes the difference.

Take Uber and its rideshare model. The world’s biggest ‘cab’ company doesn’t own a single vehicle. Let that sink in for a second. One superhero power common among disruptors is the use of simple lateral thinking frameworks to help push their ideas toward real breakthroughs. Mike cites a lateral thinking framework called SCAMPER to help us look at what Uber did so well.


Using this framework, Uber founders might have wondered what would happen if they substituted a fleet of cars with drivers who owned vehicles. Or if they combined requesting a ride and payments into a convenient mobile app. What if they adapted this…what if they modified that…and so on and so on.

Lateral thinking allowed Uber to take a huge sector within transportation—one that did things the way they had always done—and turn it on its head to change the game forever.

Haunted by ghosts.

Mike says he never met a disruptor who didn’t have a chip on their shoulder. A ghost keeping them up at night. The late Steve Jobs, one of the most influential disruptors in modern history, had plenty of ghosts pushing him.

Jobs, with his penchant for the dramatic, took on giant organizations he felt were out to get him. AT&T, IBM, Sony, Nokia, Microsoft and more. While his ghosts made him a real bear to work with, they also helped drive Jobs to create the world’s most valued company.

Closer to sweet home Chicago, consider one of the NBA’s immortals, Michael Jordan. Famously, Michael didn’t make the cut for the varsity basketball squad at his high school. The spot he was trying out for went to a player named Leroy Smith.

During Michael’s long NBA playing career acquiring six championships, MJ used Leroy Smith’s name as an alias wherever he traveled. Years later, Michael’s induction into the Hall of Fame included a special guest in the front row. Leroy Smith. Culminating his acceptance speech, he looked down at Leroy, pointed and said “I got you, man. I got you.”

Ideally, disruptors get their ghost instead of it getting them. Mike advises us to recognize the ghost, compete against it and be grateful for such a powerful ally.

Every yin needs a yang.

As Mike so astutely observes, there’s always tension between visionaries and operators of companies. Idea monkeys and ringleaders. It’s the divergence/convergence conundrum.

Once upon a time, a disruptor named Walt Disney had this little pipe dream of a park that would become known as Disneyland.

Whistling and walking, arriving to work at the studio one sunny Monday, Walt discovered his brother Roy had been working the numbers on a blackboard all weekend. “Walt, do you realize your little idea is going to cost us more than $2 million dollars?” To which Walt replied, “Why bother me with these insignificant details, Roy?”

Where there’s a Walt, there’s a Roy. Walt, the brilliant ideator possessed with the classic “Ready, fire aim,” mentality. And Roy, the idea-killer focused on the essentials. Walt had ideas. Roy made them happen. Together, they created the happiest place on earth.

It’s about finding balance. Creative tension effectively managed is crucial to achieving real innovation. Leadership teams and companies that do so reap large and lasting benefits.

A self-described Idea Monkey whose purpose is to inspire and empower curiosity, Mike Maddock is a founding partner of McGuffin and CEO and founder of internationally-recognized innovation marketing firm Maddock Douglas.

Want to “break things better,” as Mike likes to say? Disrupt us.

McGuffin Mornings is a quarterly breakfast series hosted by McGuffin Creative Group in downtown Chicago. Covering topics focused on trends and insights in marketing, advertising and creative, it serves as a forum for savvy marketers to connect and sharpen skills in our rapidly changing industry. If you’d like to know about future McGuffin Mornings events, you can sign up right here. We’d love to see you there.