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Whitney Johnson: Disrupt Yourself

Whitney Johnson has changed her career direction several times. And each time she has become, arguably, more successful. That’s her point. If we can disrupt our comfortable career habits – and do it right – we can see ever greater success.

Johnson was named as one of 2015’s Thinkers50 top 50 management thinkers for her insights into how to achieve this. As a friend and co-worker of Clayton Christensen, whose academic work focuses on disrutive innovation in corporations, she has chosen to adopt and adapt his language.

Whitney Johnson
Whitney Johnson

Short Biography

Whitney Johnson was born in Spain, in 1961, and grew up in California. She studied Music at Brigham Young University, also visiting Uruguay for two years, as a Mormon missionary. After graduation, she and her husband moved to New York, so he could pursue a PhD, and Whitney Johnson got a job as a secretary in a Wall Street firm.

There, she recognised that to progress and start to match the salary levels of the traders across the office, she’d need to gain business skills, which she did. By 1996, she was working as an equity analyst at Salomon Smith Barney, moving to Merrill Lynch in 2000. She was enormously successful, and specialised in Latin American stocks.

In 2006, following a meeting with Christensen at church, they co-founded investment company Rose Park Advisors. Johnson was responsible for fund formation, capital raising, and the development of the Fund’s investment strategy. She served as Rose Park’s President from 2007 to 2012. They used Christensen’s theories of disruptive innovation to invest in early stage companies.

Whitney Johnson’s First Book: Dare, Dream, Do

While she was running Rose Park, Johnson wrote her first book, Dare, Dream, Do. This of course triggered another career disruption for her. This book is about how women can build a happy life by pursuing their passions.

Her current work life is a portfolio of non-executive roles on company advisory boards, coaching, podcasting, speaking and writing. In 2015, she articulated her story and her lessons, wrapped up in the disruption metaphor in her best-selling book, Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work.

Disrupt Yourself

In the modern world of work, Johnson observes that we are staying in job roles for ever shorter times. In addition, to make a radical change in our career prospects, we need to do something radically different.

Her prescription has seven components.

1.  Take the Right Risks

Johnson makes a helpful distinction between what she calls Competitive Risk and Market Risk.

  • Competitive Risk is when we take on established players in a secure market that is lucrative, and which we understand. Johnson observes this is the risk most of us take on, yet is not likely to yield the best returns. Instead, we should put more focus on taking…
  • Market Risk. This is where we play in a new space. It involves finding new opportunities, and building new capabilities. However, the competitive risk is small, because few will be addressing this market. The new market you take on needs to give you the scope to meet a need better or more cheaply.

However, Johnson also says that if your market feels scary and lonely, then you are probably in the right place. Hmm. Maybe you are, or maybe you are just somewhere scary and lonely. You need to do your research!

2. Play to Your Distinctive Strengths

What are your strengths, and which ones can you match to the market needs you have identified? Johnson refers readers to Strengths Finder 2.0, and also adds some helpful questions. These will support you in gaining a little insight into your strengths. For example:

  • What skills have helped you survive so far?
  • What makes you feel strong?
  • When do you feel at your best; invigorated, inquisitive, successful?
  • What made you different as a child?
  • What are your hard-won skills?

3-5. After this, the other five components are:

  1. Embrace Constraint
  2. Battle Entitlements
  3. Step back to Grow
  4. Give Failure its Due
  5. Let your Strategy Emerge from Discovery

Whitney Johnson in her Own Words


You might like the Career Transition Pocketbook


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Clayton Christensen: Disruptive Innovation

Clayton Christensen currently* styles himself as the ‘World’s Top Management Thinker’.  I don’t propose to either challenge or endorse his claim, but let’s at least take a look at his thinking and see what the source of that extraordinary claim is. It is about ‘disruptive innovation’ – the idea that new entrants to a market, with new ideas, can disrupt the market. Established competitors – even the best managed ones (particularly those, Christensen argues) will fail.

I confess I don’t have any of Christensen’s books on my shelves, but I do have ‘The Mind of the Strategist‘ by Kenichi Ohmae: ‘But to break out of a stalemate, the strategist has to take drastic steps.’  Christensen’s idea is not new: what he does is examine it in great depth.

Clayton Christensen

Brief Biography

Christensen was born in Salt Lake City in 1952, and took his first degree, in economics, at Brigham Young University. He then wen to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, to study applied econometrics, returning to the US to take Harvard MBA. He joined prominent strategy consulting firm Boston Consulting Group, did a spell in the Reagan White House, within the Transportation Department, and co-founded a high-tech materials science business, CPS Technologies Corporation, in 1984. He returned to Harvard in the mid-1990s to do a doctoral thesis in Business Administration, from which he joined the faculty. He is now Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School; and is regarded as one of the world’s top experts on innovation and growth.

In 2000, Christensen founded a consulting firm called Innosight, which applies his theories of disruptive innovation to help companies create new growth businesses. In 2007, he also founded Rose Park Advisors, an investment firm that seeks to invest in disruptive companies. His Innosight Institute is a non-profit think tank with a mission  to apply his theories to social problems such as healthcare and education.

He has written a number of books, which are discussed below.

Christensen’s Ideas

The Innovator’s Dilemma: When new technologies cause great firms to fail

The Innovator’s Dilemma was published in 1997. Its primary thesis is that large, well-established businesses in stable markets are frequently the victims of disruptive strategies from new, low-end competitors, seizing their markets with a lower cost, often technologically-enabled, service or product offering. Christensen argues that well-managed businesses are doomed to fail eventually, and that 80% of the corporations studied in business schools therefore teach students the secret of eventual failure.

The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and sustaining successful growth

The Innovator’s Solution was published in 2003. It built upon its predecessor and set out to answer the threat of disruptive insurgency by smaller upstarts. Christensen set out three ways:

  1. the corporation can spin-off a new, smaller, more agile, but well managed and resourced upstart of its own
  2. the corporation can acquire an existing innovative upstart business and nurture it
  3. the corporation can create a sand-box business i=unit, free of existing constraints, within which to build its own upstart

Seeing What’s Next: Using the theories of innovation to predict industry change

Seeing What’s Next was published in 2004 and took the story one step further, identifying three ways to spot the trends that will lead to disruption:

  1. identify the signs and portents that change is coming
  2. analyse the competitive environment and the conflicts it creates
  3. understand your strategic choices

Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (2008), and The Innovator’s Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Health Care (2009) followed. These extended Christensen’s ideas into the realms of education and healthcare respectively. He returned to the more generic thinking with…

The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the five skills of disruptive innovators

The Innovator’s DNA was published in 2011 and  sets out the five skills we need to develop if we want to be innovators:

  1. Associational thinking – synthesising new ideas by combining ideas and knowledge from multiple sources
  2. Questioning – asking the questions that less innovative minds fail to recognise
  3. Observing- noticing the world around them
  4. Networking  – seeking new people with new ideas, and testing out their own ideas with a wide variety of people
  5. Experimenting – seeing pilots, prototypes and experiments s the way to learn, develop and innovate more

It is important to note that, although Christensen is the leading thinker behind all of these ideas (as far as an outsider can tell), on all but the first of the books listed above, he collaborated with co-authors.


Recently, there has been a somewhat public spat between New Yorker journalist Jill Lepore and Clayton Christensen. Lepore wrote a highly critical analysis of the idea of disruption in general, and of Christensen’s work in particular: ‘The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong‘. Subsequently, Drake Bennet interviewed Christensen for Business Week and published a lengthy article with Christensen’s response: ‘Clayton Christensen Responds to New Yorker Takedown of ‘Disruptive Innovation’‘.

Make your own judgement.



* On his website, 23 June 2014.
The World's Top Management Thinker

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