Disrupters, Transformers, Oh My!

Written by Kayla Brehm | Apr 13, 2015 12:00:06 PM

Guest blog by Chip R. Bell:

“If I had asked customers what they wanted,” Henry Ford is rumored to have said, “They would have said faster horses.”  Now, before you fire the market research department, it is important to remember Henry Ford’s arrogance about customers also lead him to chide, “Customers can have any color automobile they like as a long as it is black.”  Not exactly customer-centric!  But, visioning beyond the customer is the responsibility of every person interested in competitive advantage.

What do Bill Marriott, Ray Kroc and Al Hopkins have in common? No, they are not all people of wealth and fame!  In fact, Al is a small town accountant and part-time preacher!  They all are (or were) innovative disruptors who discovered new ways to better serve customers and trigger service transformations.  They saw the way a given service was being delivered and found a new way to turn it completely on its ear.  And, their insight forever transformed an industry space.

Willard (Bill, Sr.) Marriott in 1937 started the first catering service to airlines for meals on board after he noticed people at Hoover Field (now the site of the Pentagon) were going by his small Hot Shoppes restaurant and buying take out food before boarding  their flights.  Ray Kroc saw the growth of the nationwide highway system and the paucity of reliable roadside eateries and invented McDonald’s--not just as a quick-service restaurant but as a concept of a recognizable chain of hamburger factories that produced consistent burgers prepared quickly, accurately, and served in a clean, wholesome setting.

And Al Hopkins?  When he was a young boy he watched the other ten-year-olds wait for customers to stop by their sidewalk lemonade stands in the hot summer sun.  Al abandoned the “stand” concept and took his lemonade business door-to-door.  He made enough money in one summer to buy a new Schwinn Flyer bicycle with a headlight and a siren!  The next summer there was not a single stationary lemonade stand in town, but quite a few traveling lemonade sales people.


Service Disruptor to Service Transformer


Disruptors are visionary companies that change the rules of enterprise by disrupting the way service had historically been delivered.  Uber, for example, saw the need for reliable, clean taxis and coupled it with the growth of mobile phone use and revolutionized the taxi business.  Netflix saw the success of Amazon’s online department store and realized the movie rental business needed an online alterative to the brick and mortar Blockbuster.  Granted, every enterprise cannot be the next NetFlix, McDonald’s or Uber.  But, all can be service transformers.

When a young child was asked to explain why he liked the transformer toys that were the rage, he said, “They’re neat!  If I have a plain old toy car I might be able to take stuff off of it and make it a hot rod.  But with a transformer, I can turn a bug into a bulldozer!”   Smart organizations take a page from the Thomas Edison playbook and opt to be transformers—inventing a light bulb rather than improving the candle.

Transformers seize upon opportunities created by the ways disruptions alter customer expectations. After a few trips with Uber (or Lyft), I am now disappointed my local exterminator who chases away the bugs in my house does not give me an app that allows me to rate him or track his journey to my front door.  Before Uber, such a value-add never occurred to me.  Amazon’s super computer friendly forms leads me to scratch my head when my new medical specialist forces me to fill out necessary medical forms in long hand?   Ask for the laborious forms in advance and you get an email with a PDF attachment, not a computer-friendly form.

How is transformer work done?  There are countless innovation techniques.  Extrapolation is one of my favorites.  Let us take the much-ballyhooed Apple Watch as an example.  The watch is slated to redefine the meaning of watch---more of a wearable mobile phone.  Combining Fitbit-like health maintenance with any number of other monitoring capacities, the watch is only a click away from becoming a portal to monitor practically everything in your life.  And, I can potentially link in my doctor who can then call me on the golf course to let me know my pulse rate looks like a heart attack about to happen.  James Bond would kill for all the cool gimmickry that might soon become commonplace.

We are only playing “what if’s,” like school children dreaming up new roles for imaginary space invaders.  But, that is how it is done.  And, if your preview of “what’s coming” is less about what might be and more about the pace customers generalize that newness to everything thing around them, you are on the productive and profitable path of innovative service.  ATM’s don’t just give you money; they can now give you cupcakes!

Being a disruptor or transformer takes boldness and the capacity for risk taking.  The president of Henry Ford’s lawyer’s bank advised him not to invest in the Ford Motor Company.  “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a fad,” the banker is reported to have told Ford’s lawyer. Jack Welch, while GE Chairman, told the Wall Street Journal:   "You can't proceed in a calm, rational manner.  You have to be out there on the lunatic fringe."  Today's lunacy is tomorrow's conventional wisdom; today's conventional wisdom is tomorrow's historical footnote.

Strategy guru Gary Hamel put the requirement for disruptors and transformers this way in an article he wrote for the Harvard Business Review:  "Corporations around the world are reaching the limits of incrementalism.  Squeezing another penny out of costs, getting product to market a few weeks earlier, responding to customers' inquiries a little bit faster, ratcheting quality up one more notch, capturing another point of market share--those are the obsessions of managers today.  But pursuing incremental improvements while rivals reinvent the industry is like fiddling while Rome burns."

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several best-selling books.  His newest book is the just-released Sprinkles:  Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service.  He can be reached at