How 'Shift Disturbers' Drive Workplace Innovation

Key players – known as “shift disturbers” – drive change. By understanding their outlook and methods, it is possible to display more of their best traits in one’s own innovation practices.
By Shaniqua Thomas

Innovation in the workplace is something all companies claim to want. Yet being a fan of innovation and actually creating an environment where it happens are two very different things. For many firms, the difference comes down to how well key individual players known as “shift disturbers” are understood within the organization.

Shift disturbers are innovation champions with the skills and charisma to inspire others to follow in their footsteps. Understanding them – or even actively trying to become one – starts with an awareness of their creative confidence and competence, the key processes shift disturbers tend to use, and the way a shift disturber flows with (or against) existing organizational culture. Following are three key areas with practical examples given for real-world implementation.

How Creative Competence and Confidence Make Shift Disturbers Possible
Shift disturbers shake up the status quo with their competence and creative confidence. While some argue that a certain business “moxie” is innate, most shift disturbers have deliberately cultivated their “let’s try it” mindset with self-help and self-empowerment resources. Their positive attitude is also backed by real competence – many are outstanding performers in their individual specialties, which gives them an extra edge as they seek to push boundaries.

In fact, it is this deep knowledge of their business niche that helps make their innovative power possible. They know how things work … and where they don’t, they’re willing to put in the effort to read up on the work rules so that they can have a better view of how to break them.

This does not necessarily mean shift disturbers thrive on non-stop disruption. They have a healthy respect for systems that work and incremental improvements. But, they stand apart from other employees in that they are less afraid of failed experimentation and more resilient in the face of attempts at new processes that don’t work out.

How does this play out in a practical way? When top performers propose unique solutions to ongoing corporate issues, they are self-identifying as potential shift disturbers. Encouraging this innovation and allowing reasonable room for experimentation will help keep them engaged and keep the company as the primary beneficiary of their skills.

Which Tools and Processes are Favored by Shift Disturber Types?
Shift disturbers have a group of favored processes and tools that help them execute their ideas. While some are consistent with good corporate citizenship, others may be viewed as “anti-corporate” behaviors. Recognizing these processes and tools in play can help differentiate between up-and-coming innovators who need to be encouraged and straight up disruptors who need to be managed.

Positively viewed tools and processes of shift disturbers are research, collaboration, and team-building. Driven by a deep curiosity, shift disturbers enjoy going deep on key issues and building connections between ideas from seemingly unrelated areas. They like networking and collaboration with other “doers” in the organization, and they can use their enthusiasm and influence to build strong teams who can execute swiftly on new ideas, at times even creating new pathways through existing governance structures (and strictures).

However, at times their tendency to question existing protocols, work across divisions, and circumvent established management hierarchies could throw up red flags. In companies where a bias toward innovation is not a regular part of the corporate culture, this can feel extremely threatening.

In these cases, it is important for managers to look at the intention behind the actions and determine if there is an innovative drive in play or whether the employee in question is a poor fit for the organization long-term. Are they seeking to make improvements, or is there some sort of a turf war going on? It is not always an easy call, but understanding the high need for variety and improvement of natural shift disturbers can help keep these players inside the organization while allowing management to separate out true disruptors.

How Does Organizational Strategy and Culture Fit Into the Life of a Shift Disturber?
As shift disturbers execute their ideas, existing organizational strategy and culture will factor into their plans. Those seeking straight disruption create an impact not unlike a bull raging through a china shop. However, while innovative shift disturbers will certainly make waves, they are seeking the improvement of their home organization, not its annihilation, and it shows in their approach.

Most shift disturbers have a real awareness of the personal impacts their work will have on their teammates. They may explicitly articulate the cultural norms that they will be disrupting or present innovation plans that include a certain period of adaptation for workers used to a different system. As they look toward bringing their ideas to life, they will also include calculations around whether the current organization culture will act as a barrier or an accelerator for their vision or proposed change.

Managers and HR team may also see that shift disturbers make careful study of organizational strategies a central part of their lives. After all, it is difficult to change what is not well understood, and while shift disrupters can bounce back quickly from failures, they do like to see a certain amount of success from their efforts. As a result, their actions will be informed by an understanding of the current organizational strategy, even if they acknowledge that the strategy is imperfect for their innovative purposes.

In practice, most smart shift disturbers use the organization culture and strategies as a springboard. Outside the organization, as independent entrepreneurs, they would be without support or funding for their proposals. Inside the organization, they can find practical support and encouragement for their innovative experiments.

As a result, the better they become at understanding and navigating the current corporate culture, the more likely they are to thrive. Supporting them can thus be as simple as helping them build deeper partnerships with key influencers or cultural leaders inside the organization.