Participant Story

Nina Zimmermann

Nina Zimmermann

Mastering the Art of Disruptive Innovation

  • Role

    Managing Director, Burda Studios Publishing
  • Industry

    • Technology

The program retunes your brain to be a sponge again. It's a fantastic learning experience.

Nina Zimmermann, managing director of Munich-based Burda Studios Publishing, found her way to Harvard Business School (HBS) Executive Education with a little luck and a lot of hard work. In this interview, she explains how she became a participant in the Disruptive Innovation program and the value she gained from that learning experience.

What brought you to the Disruptive Innovation program?

About a year and a half ago, our CEO and a few board members came to Harvard and met [HBS professor] Bharat Anand. Bharat had written The Content Trap, a book that is very relevant to companies like ours in the media business. Then, exactly one year ago, our Executive Circle—a group of 50 or 60 executives from our company—came together for our yearly meeting. There, the CEO asked us to read The Content Trap and divide into teams to write a paper based on what we learned. It turned out to be a competition, with Bharat and our board deciding which paper had the most potential. I was part of the winning team, and our prize was a weeklong program at HBS Executive Education. I chose to attend the Disruptive Innovation program because it resonated with me.

You experienced an interesting coincidence before coming to the program. Can you share that story?

Two days before coming here, my company reconvened the same group of executives for our annual meetup. Our CEO said that last year's exercise worked out so well that we were going to do it again. This time, we were asked to read Competing Against Luck—which happens to be a book written by Clay Christensen, the faculty chair of Disruptive Innovation—and focus on the jobs-to-be-done theory—which I had just read about in preparation for this program.

We were asked to interview customers on the street based on the jobs-to-be-done theory, put together a sample clip of videos, write a press release, and write an investor memo. It was a very enlightening and empowering experience to go out into the streets of Berlin and ask random people, "Do you know our product? What do you think about it?" It was a good reminder of how important it is to get back into the trenches because it gives you more purpose and strategic definition. As Professor Christensen told us, every business needs to start with a deliberate strategy.

How will you apply what you've learned in the program?

It has to start with getting everyone speaking the same language. Everyone should understand concepts such as RPPs [resources, processes, and priorities], jobs-to-be-done theory, and the threats-opportunities framework. I will encourage others in my organization to read the theories and go through the exercise of translating this to our industry and what it means for us. And then we’ll go back to the grassroots work, like conducting user interviews.

How did you benefit from participating in the program on campus?

It was so critical to be here. When you're here, you experience a whole week of immersion. Having meals and discussions with your peers allows you to hear other people's experiences, and that's so important. Having a conversation over dinner or a chat at the coffee machine forces you to constantly reflect on what you heard and learned in class. You wouldn't get that if you were going through an online program.

Can you describe your interactions with other program participants?

The class was extremely heterogeneous, and the networking was very valuable. I noticed that on the first day, everyone was afraid of making a mistake; people would hesitate to raise their hand in class. But by the third day, it was a completely different environment. Suddenly there were tons of hands going up and tons of people making contributions. Everyone felt very comfortable. I found that very powerful.

How would you describe the program's value?

The program helps you develop your strategic-thinking skills and gain practical tools, frameworks, and methodologies for making decisions on a massive scale. On day one of the program you think, "How am I going to get through this?" By day three, you're like, "I'm halfway through. Where did the time go?" And once you get to day four or five, you say, "Oh no, there's only two days left." It's so much material for one week but it retunes your brain to be a sponge again. It's a fantastic learning experience.

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