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Product Leader – Your Comfort Zone Kills Innovation

Being a Product Leader Tasked with Disruptive Innovation

In the 2006 article “Inhibitors of disruptive innovation capability: a conceptual model” author Marnix Assink found several ways in which large companies inhibit disruptive innovation, including:

  • the inability to unlearn obsolete mental models
  • clinging to a successful dominant design or business concept
  • a risk‐averse corporate climate
  • innovation process mismanagement
  • lack of adequate follow‐through

As a product leader you sit at the hub of all of these issues

Whether you create the issues or merely contribute to them, you certainly have visibility into them like no one else in your organization. You live in the space where strategy meets tactics and you have to expertly negotiate both of those waters.

You come up against the existing mindsets and witness the processes in action that contribute or inhibit the innovation you are tasked with driving.

When I first read this list it seemed like an insightful description of what a comfort zone looks like: a mindset that is backed up by past success, emotional attachment to that mindset (ie risk-averse to changing it) and the processes in place to defend it and hold it all together.

Product leaders who want to support disruptive innovation, either a new business model or a new product/technology, or both, need to be able to recognize their own comfort zone and then purposefully step outside of it before they can lead the organization to do the same.

What does a Product Leader Comfort Zone Look Like?

So what does a comfort zone look like for a product leader? Each of us has a unique comfort zone that we’ve built up ourselves, but here are some things to look at:

  • Inability to unlearn obsolete mental models

    • What mental models are you clinging to? There are obvious ones like technology or MBA business processes, but how about looking at how you deal with authority? Or conflict? Or motivation? Or failure? Are you regurgitating old models out of habit or can you adopt new ways of seeing how you interact with others, your organization, and the world at large?
  • Clinging to a successful dominant design or concept

    • What version of your Glory Days are you clinging to? What version of yourself are you trying to sell to others and what do you do when others don’t buy it?
  • Risk-averse climate

    • How willing are you to change anything and everything about yourself for the sake of your vision? What is your comfort level with risking what you have successfully built for the chance at something innovative?
  • Innovation process mismanagement

    • Let’s say you do want to change/evolve your mental models, what processes have you put in place to help you do this successfully? Just “wanting to change” or grow is not enough. You need education and support, training and coaching, to make lasting changes take root. How often do you dedicate time for “sharpening the saw?” as Stephen Covey put it.
  • Lack of adequate follow-through

    • Do you often start self-growth with great enthusiasm and optimism, then somewhere along the journey let it trail off and finally die from lack of attention? Or do you push through the inevitable challenges that come from change to get the learning and growth on the other side?

By looking at how you manage innovation for yourself you can tell where in the journey of transforming your products and your organization you are likely to succeed or fail. And when you fail, disruptive innovation fails with you. And when you succeed you blaze a path to success for you, your team, your product, and your organization. You may even revolutionize an industry.

Will it be easy? No, it will not. If it was easy everyone would do it.

Product Leaders: Get into your “Discomfort Zone”

You can always be more tomorrow than you are today—a better version of you as a Product Leader is waiting in your “discomfort zone.” So how to get there?

In the 280 Group blog post “Elevate Your Product Leadership Through Emotional Intelligence” I spoke of the need of self-awareness (what triggers your discomfort) and self-regulation (how do you handle it) and these two elements are the heart of getting into—and functioning well—in your discomfort zone.

Your discomfort zone is essentially any situation in which your stress-coping mechanisms are engaged: either fight, flight, or freeze, or some combination there-in. As individuals we all go through this, but we also experience similar reactions at the group and even organizational level.

When you can see and manage your own discomfort you will be in a better position to lead people through their discomfort, which is an inevitable result of driving to true disruptive innovation.

Innovation starts with your leadership and it is never found in your comfort zone.

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Meet the Author

Colleen O’Rourke is a Principal Consultant and Trainer at The 280 Group. She is passionate about developing Product Managers as leaders within their organizations, unleashing their exponential impact into the mix of products, people, and processes that are needed for success.

Colleen Product Leadership

Colleen O’Rourke
Senior Principal Consultant and Trainer


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