"Disrupting" Your Career

Finding a Rewarding Career Path

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Don't be put off when the career path ahead looks rocky.

Halle has been an HR manager for four years. She's become unhappy in her role, however, because she rarely gets to do what she's best at. Her greatest strength is her creativity. She often comes up with ideas to improve the organization's processes, but her ideas rarely get heard, because they're not the main focus of her job.

She cares deeply about her organization, but she feels she'd be able to make more of a difference if she were in another role. The problem is that she doesn't know what that role is. You may empathize with Halle's situation. If you're in the right organization but the wrong role, you don't have the chance to use your strengths, and you can't provide as much value as you want to.

This is where "self-disruption" (an unhelpful term) is useful, because it helps you identify your strengths and take a new direction in your career. In this article, we'll explore self-disruption, and we'll discuss how you can apply it for yourself.

What Is Self-Disruption?

Self-disruption is based on the principles of disruptive innovation, an idea set out by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen. Disruptive innovation is the concept of spotting a niche technological idea, looking for unmet market needs, and turning the technology into a product that first meets these needs but then goes on to transform a whole industry.

Outlined by Whitney Johnson in the August 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review, self-disruption applies Christensen's concept on a personal level. With it, you identify your strengths, look for unmet needs within your organization, and change the direction of your career to meet those needs.

The ideal result is a win-win situation. You move into a role that matches your strengths more closely, and this allows you to provide more value to your organization.

Johnson set out four steps:

  1. Identify a need that can be met more effectively.
  2. Identify your unique strengths.
  3. Step sideways to grow.
  4. Get ready for change.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review. From "Disrupt Yourself" by Whitney Johnson, August 2011. Copyright © 2011 by the Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation; all rights reserved.

You can use self-disruption to move to a different team or department within your organization. You can also use the same ideas to find new opportunities in your industry, or to start your own business.


In our view, the association between disruptive technology and self-disruption is tenuous. However, the self-disruption process is sound, particularly when used with good judgment, and when used alongside other career development approaches.

Applying the Principles of Self-Disruption

Let's consider how you can apply self-disruption to your career.

1. Target a Need That Can Be Met More Effectively

The first step is to find a need that's not being met in your organization – or one that's not being met as well as it could be. You can use several approaches to spot these needs.

First, look for bottlenecks in your organization. Where does work back up or slow down? And where are people stressed?

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You can also look at processes that frustrate you. Conduct a Cause and Effect Analysis or Root Cause Analysis on these processes to understand more about what's going wrong.

2. Identify Your Unique Strengths

Next, figure out your unique strengths – what you do better than other people in your organization.

There are several tools can help you here. For example, you can use the StrengthsFinder or a Personal SWOT Analysis to uncover your strengths. You can also use the MPS Process or the Reflected Best Self approach to understand them better, and to explore how you can use them more in your career.

Take time to think deeply about the type of work that brings you the most satisfaction. For instance, which tasks – at work or outside it – allow you to slip into a state of flow? You're usually using your unique strengths when you experience this state.

Once you have a good understanding of your strengths, look at the list of bottlenecks and needs that you've identified within your organization. How could you use your unique strengths to solve some of these issues?

3. Step Sideways to Grow

We often see our professional advancement as an "upward only" path. However, sometimes you need to take a sidestep, or even a step back, to realize your full potential.

In fact, these "zigzag" careers are becoming more common. Lateral moves are popular, because they give you the chance to learn new skills, understand different areas of the business, and apply your knowledge to a new role without the upheaval of moving to a new organization.

So, once you've identified an unmet need in your organization and can see how your strengths can be used to meet it, don't be afraid to take that next step.

When you're ready, talk to your boss or HR representative about the opportunities you've uncovered, and explain how you can help solve the issues that you've identified.

You may want to conduct a cost-benefit analysis or write a business case to show that you've understood the wider business issues involved in your planned career move.


Some individuals and organizations are likely to be more receptive to such conversations than others. For example, large or slow-changing organizations may find it difficult to create new roles.

Use your best judgment as to how to approach this issue.

If it isn't appropriate to discuss a career change with your boss or HR representative, you can still look for suitable opportunities within your organization. Your knowledge of the company's processes and staff is likely to make you a promising candidate.

4. Get Ready for Change

The last step in disruption is a big one – getting ready for change.

Start by exploring the skills you're likely to need in your ideal role. You've already identified your strengths – now look at how to build on these, so that you can bring yourself up to speed. Make time for professional development, create a personal development plan, and develop the new skills that you'll need.

Do you need new qualifications for your planned career move? If so, our article on overcoming a lack of qualifications outlines a variety of ways that you can upskill for a new role.

You might not be able to see how transitioning to a different role will affect your career in five years' time – that's common when planning a lateral move. So, ensure that your skills and knowledge are up to date whatever role you're in. Look to future-proof your career by keeping an eye out for ongoing career paths, building your professional networks, and keeping a note of the skills that you're developing.


Self-disruption is just one approach that you should consider when you're in an unsatisfactory role.

You can consider using job-crafting strategies to shape your existing role. Our articles on working with purpose and creating job satisfaction will also help you find more meaning in your current role.

Key Points

Self-disruption is a technique that involves matching unmet needs in your organization with your unique strengths. You then find a way to create a role for yourself that meets those organizational needs, being prepared to let your career strategy emerge gradually from this point onwards.

There are four steps to self-disruption:

  1. Target a need that can be met more effectively.
  2. Identify your unique strengths.
  3. Step sideways to grow.
  4. Get ready for change.