Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen first coined the phrase “disruptive innovation” in his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. According to Christensen, disruptive innovation happens when “a product or service initially takes root in simple applications at the bottom of a market—typically by being less expensive and more accessible—and then relentlessly moves upmarket, eventually displacing established competitors.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because Netflix did that, effectively putting Best Buy out of business.
Disruption gets noticed. For an industry historically left running in the background, we need our customers to start paying more attention. We need their support, buy-in, and trust as we face challenges such as funding and workforce.
Our industry often catches criticism for not being quick to innovate or adopt new technology, and as a company that goes against the grain and often leads with technology, what we’re about to say might feel odd or unconventional. While disruption is already happening throughout the water industry, the concept is not only about technology.
Companies in the tech space and water utilities implementing digital solutions shouldn’t discount the many human-centered elements of disruption. Disrupting the industry is not just about having the best products or being the first to embrace a certain kind of technology. To be “disruptive,” you need these:
- A high degree of focus on your end customers
- Better internal decision-making
- Teams that are organized logically to prevent overlap work, among other issues
- A strong internal culture so that people understand what actions, attitudes, and behaviors to bring to work
- A culture where it’s okay to fail periodically, as striving to “disrupt” the industry may lead to failure initially
These make sense when we take into account that water utilities provide both a product and a service to customers. To disrupt how a service is provided, technology is necessary, but the service business model will always require tangible interactions with human beings.
Look at what’s happening globally with the smart water movement. Though the movement is driven by technology, for smart water to be disruptive, involved organizations need to understand their end users. Similarly, the smart city movement focuses on its customers. While smart cities can be an example of technology helping to build community, a solution isn’t considered “smart” until the end user engages with the solution. To earn this engagement, cities must effectively communicate the added value these solutions pose to a person’s everyday life. In this way, the plan’s communications model is just as important as the tech component.
So, why do we tend to forget those non-tech elements when we talk about disruption? In the May-June 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review, the authors studied multiple industries (including utilities!) and found that most leaders predominantly frame “disruption” in technological terms, phrases, and product rollouts. This was fairly common regardless of what the end products or users looked like.
It was 2011 it was first declared “software is eating the world,” and that phrase gets truer every year. Tech is omnipresent, so when we think of “disruption,” we automatically think tech and its role. But technology wouldn’t be possible without a healthy dose of humanity.
Begin your water story by framing the story for the customer. If you consistently deliver for the customer, even without the latest technology, you can still be “disruptive” in nature. At the end of the day, whether our customers have a choice in service or not, we should treat them as if they do.