How to disrupt a schema – and why it’s necessary

by Carl Natale on June 3, 2010

Photo by daryl_mitchell via Flickr

Photo by daryl_mitchell via Flickr

I went out to eat last night in this dingy hole in the wall. Yes it looked run down from the outside. But inside it was very clean. The waitress was wonderful. She was friendly and steered me away from the food that wasn’t so good.

What I did order was excellent. It tasted like it came off a menu with prices that should be twice as high.

The whole experience was a wonderful surprise.

Now you’re wondering where you can have the same experience. Your interest is aroused because I told you a story about an unexpected outcome.

I didn’t expect such good food and service because I walked into “this dingy hole in the wall.” From the outside, the restaurant didn’t look capable of creating a great customer experience.
From this point on, we’re going to call that expectation a schema. A schema usually refers to a model, and our brains are full of schemas.

It’s a survival mechanism. As we experience life and learn skills, we create schemas that we use to predict outcomes and guide us. It saves time and brain power so we can concentrate on new experiences. Our brains are on constant alert to anything that contradicts our schemas – like predators.

And good restaurants in dingy holes in the wall.

A schema is created that says when we eat in such a place, we will get a bad meal and poor service. Either we have bad experiences in similar restaurants or we hear from someone who does. The schema then guides us away from such restaurants.

But my good experience disrupted that schema. The disruption put me on alert. And survival instincts motivated me to tell you a story about the disruption.

Telling stories is hard wired into our brains too. Our species survives, evolves and thrives because we are driven to communicate information and disruptions of schemas. Those schemas could be crucial alerts about impending danger.

But a story about a great customer experience when one isn’t expected doesn’t exactly qualify as impending danger. Our instincts don’t take the time to evaluate the danger potential of a disruption. The disruption automatically triggers extra attention and a desire to communicate.

There’s a takeaway here.

When you disrupt a schema, you get customers’ attention and inspire them to tell someone about it. Disruption is at the core of setting your business apart from the competition and generating word-of-mouth marketing.

What are some other types of disruption?

  • A car dealer who doesn’t pressure you to buy a vehicle from him.
  • A mechanic who recommends less expensive fixes for your car.
  • A movie rental place that doesn’t charge late fees.
  • A retailer that brags about its total satisfaction, money back guarantee.

Yes, a couple are stereotypes. But a stereotype is a schema. The disruption is just as powerful whether the schema is based upon fact or perception.

Don’t forget that disruption makes for a great story. The best stories have unexpected endings. Why tell a story when your audience knows the outcome? Schemas are very boring. We need disruptions to spice them up.

Now it’s time to disrupt some schemas.

  • First, identify the schemas. This is easy. What are your industry standard practices? How does everyone else do it? Those are schemas.
  • Second, identify customer complaints. What are the things that make them angry? These complaints are schemas in desperate need of disruption.
  • Third, pick a schema and don’t use it in your business. Simple to say but maybe not so easy to do. There may be a good reason for the schema. (There often is.) You need to figure out if your disruption is a profitable model.

Let’s look at my favorite schema disruption: Netflix.

Back in the day, Blockbuster dominated the video rental business. They had big stores and made big money off movies on VHS tapes. They made even bigger money off late fees. To be fair, it was the industry norm to charge renters when they returned tapes after the deadline.

And we hated it. It was the biggest complaint about the movie rental industry.

Then something happened that changed everything. DVDs became economical for mass production and distribution. Brick and mortar movie rental stores loved DVDs because they took up less shelf space than VHS tapes. More inventory.

It also made it possible for a start up called Netflix to create a movie rental website and distribute them via mail. VHS tapes would be too expensive to ship both ways. Yes, both ways. Netflix created an envelope that you could use to return the movie without paying postage.

OK, what was so great about ordering and getting a movie in the mail? When Friday night came around, we needed a movie right away? Sure the schema got disrupted but not in a good way?

The schema Netflix disrupted was the one that each renter had a deadline and was charged when that deadline was missed. Netflix’s disruption was a fixed subscription rate that allowed renters to keep the movie as long as they wanted.

This disruption helped propel Netflix past Blockbuster. Yes they had great customer service and a recommendation engine that created a great customer experience. But it was the disruption that made Netflix a great story and got people to notice it.

There are three takeaways from this story:

  • The more customers hate the schema, the more opportunity you have in disruption.
  • Disruption isn’t everything. Sufficient inventory, customer service and pricing still matter.
  • Then Netflix business model couldn’t have happened without the DVD. No way could they distribute VHS tapes economically at the same price point they had with DVDs. Sometimes we need technology to help disrupt the schema.

Customers are looking for reasons to choose you over the competition. A disruption is exactly that reason.

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1 Carl Natale June 3, 2010 at 9:48 am

Thank you for reading my explanation of this concept that I believe is key to succeeding in business. I would love for you to comment on it. I'm not looking for validation but legitimate feedback on how it can be improved.

I would be very thankful to read what you think.

2 Carl Natale June 3, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Thank you for reading my explanation of this concept that I believe is key to succeeding in business. I would love for you to comment on it. I'm not looking for validation but legitimate feedback on how it can be improved.

I would be very thankful to read what you think.

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