Disruptive innovation can be a polarizing force. Few companies can create it, but all companies feel its effect, some in ways that damage their business irreparably. Company leaders must understand how they can benefit from such change and need to see models of who has implemented it well.

In late January 2015, Big Think, where the world’s leading thinkers examine the most essential ideas of our age, and Singularity University, a teaching organization and accelerator, came together to find definitive answers to what constitutes exponential leadership––true leadership for the age of exponential disruption. We surveyed program participants about practices related to disruptive innovation, and we filmed a series of interviews with influential exponential leaders including Peter Diamandis, Salman Khan, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, Chance Barnett, and Chris Anderson, which we'll release in the coming days.

The survey results are in, and they paint a clear picture of what it takes to change the world for the better, on an unprecedented scale.

Using questions based on recent research in the field, survey respondents were asked to:

  • Identify best practices for disruptive innovation.

  • Identify a range of companies and nonprofit organizations, and their leaders excelling in disruptive innovation practices.

  • Identify effective leadership traits as well as which technologies have the most potential to disrupt businesses in the next five years.

Experimentation, feedback, and autonomy are especially important to foster disruptive innovation.

Watch: Top exponential leader Elon Musk on Founding SpaceX, from Big Think Edge:

Respondents most frequently cited an ability to experiment and fail fast as one of the most important tools or practices to achieving such change, making it the only choice to be cited by a majority of participants. Staff autonomy and product feedback using “the crowd” were the second and third most cited requirements, painting a picture of short development cycles, ground-up innovation, and rapid readjustment.


Which three of the following tools or practices do you think are most important in creating disruptive innovation?

Organizations are executing important disruptive innovation practices, but need to embrace more data and external resources.

When looking at disruptive innovation practices in their own organizations, respondents said that they were executing well on criteria that they deemed important, such as frequent reviews of key metrics (50%), staff autonomy (47%), and experimentation (36%). Fewer respondents said that their organizations were effectively using practices such as renting assets on demand (21%) and prizes and gamification (10%).

Respondents also identified practices at which their organizations could improve. The top two of these were predictive algorithms and prizes and gamification, both cited by over 40 percent of respondents.


Which three [disruptive innovation tools or practices] do you think are being used most effectively in your organization?


Which three [disruptive innovation tools or practices] do you think are being used least effectively in your organization?

Among younger companies, leaders at sharing-economy companies were deemed at the forefront of disruptive innovation.

Respondents cited leaders of companies such as Kickstarter, Uber, and Airbnb as most effective in driving disruptive innovation by a wide margin, with Yancey Strickler, Travis Kalanick, and Brian Chesky each being cited by about two out of five respondents. Chance Barnett, CEO of Crowdfunder, was cited by 23% of respondents.


Which four of the following chief executives of young companies do you think are most effective in achieving disruptive innovation?

Among more established companies, respondents favored leaders who engaged in media and took big bets.

Eight of the 10 most cited CEOs creating disruptive innovation had some involvement in media businesses even if their core business model lay elsewhere. Examples included Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Starbucks’ Howard Schultz. Elon Musk, though, was respondents’ most popular choice, being named by half of respondents as one of the most innovative leaders in younger companies.


Which four of the following chief executives of more established companies do you think are most effective in achieving disruptive innovation?

Nonprofit leaders touted by respondents were adept at disseminating content and resources from the crowd and distributing it on a massive scale.

Examples included TED leader Chris Anderson, who has expanded TED proliferation through programs such as TEDx. Salman Khan has democratized education with Khan Academy. And both the Gates Foundation and Doctors Without Borders have helped to foment medical progress around the world.


Which four of the following leaders of nonprofits do you think are most effective in achieving disruptive innovation?

Integrity trumps other factors for effective leadership.

More respondents (30%) cited “acting with integrity” as the most important factor for effective leadership. However, respondents often cited other factors. One in four cited “embracing challenges and overcoming obstacles” — a trait consistent with the focus on experimenting and failing fast seen as key for disruptive innovation. In addition, 22% saw creating a positive work environment as the most effective trait.


Which of the following practices do you think is most important in creating effective leadership?

3D printing, IoT, and AI seem best positioned to drive disruption in the next three years.

Disruptive innovation requires an understanding of emerging trends and technologies. The highest percentage (23%) of respondents identified advances in prototyping, additive manufacturing, and nanomaterials as having the most disruptive impact on business in the next three years. Sensors and the Internet of Things came in second, with 21% of respondents citing those technologies as having the potential to be the most disruptive.

While crowd feedback was ranked highly by respondents as key to disruptive innovation in other questions, only 9% of respondents cited crowdfunding and crowdsourcing as key to driving future disruption


Which of the following technologies do you think will have the most disruptive impact on business in the next three years?


Big Think and Singularity University conducted an online survey among 1,280 professionals who had expressed interest in topics such as disruptive technologies and trends, innovation, leadership, organizational performance and culture, marketing and influence. The questionnaires were fielded between January 20 and February 5, 2015. Sample sizes for questions ranged between 848 and 1,280. The margin of error ranged from 2.7% to 3.3% at a 95% confidence level. Research design and development was done in conjunction with Reticle Research.

The answer choices for disruptive practices and technologies were inspired by and adapted from the book Exponential Organizations by Salim Ismail, Michael S. Malone and Yuri van Geest. Criteria for effective leadership were adapted from collected Big Think speaker topics. Lists of top executives for answer choices were developed based on judgements of leaders popularly recognized for industry disruption.