Is ‘disruption’ getting in the way of being disruptive?

Phil is one of ‘those guys’ who knows his stuff! I first got interested in his work when I heard he had worked as the Global Director of Organizational Change at Cadbury. Of course I wanted to know, how do they get the caramel into the Caramilk bar? (No, I don’t have the answer!) Needless to say, he has extensively worked in the change field over the years and has written a book Change with Confidence: Answers to the 50 Biggest Questions that Keep Change Leaders Up at Night. You can find out more about Phil here:  Enjoy his article!

Is ‘disruption’ getting in the way of being disruptive?

By: Phil Buckley, author of Change With Confidence

I have been trying to figure out why the word ‘disruption’ triggers a consistent response from most business professionals I speak with: silence. I have observed this in one-on-one conversations, team meetings and large workshops. Are people pondering how they could disrupt their businesses or are they immobilized by the thought of being disrupted?

‘Disruption’ continues to be a hot topic in the business media. For years, major sites and publications have profiled industries that are being disrupted by new competitors with innovative products and operating models – entertainment (Netflix), e-commerce (Square), shaving (Dollar Shave Club), etc.

A term coined by Clayton M. Christensen, ‘disruptive innovation,’ refers to a new competitor providing simpler, more affordable and accessible products or services to consumers who couldn’t afford the more costly and complex existing offers.

His theory explains how established businesses become disrupted because their operating models are built for higher margin and bigger scale markets. New competitors take market share by servicing the more price-constrained consumers.

Some companies (Google, Amazon, Apple) have chosen to disrupt themselves in order to grow their market or defend against new competitors. As Facebook’s ‘Little Red Book’ proclaims, “If we don’t create the thing that kills Facebook, someone else will.”

Many leaders use a broader definition of business disruption: any large change that blows up how we currently do business. Forbes’ definition provides clues to why this definition is emotionally charged: “disruption takes a left turn by literally uprooting and changing how we think, behave, do business, learn and go about our day-to-day.”

Perhaps the perplexing reaction to the term is caused by a fear of not knowing how to disrupt their industry. Disruption is seen as something that will be done to them versus an opportunity to be seized. Another reason could be that fundamentally changing your business model carries a risk of jeopardizing short-term performance.

I no longer use the word disruption with my clients because it doesn’t inspire productive conversations. There are many substitutes – evolution, transformation, reinvention – that stimulate ideas about how to do things (mindsets, actions and behaviours) differently to achieve better results.

Here are some tips to enable new thinking about your business:

  • Select an executive sponsor who is open to new ideas
  • Create a cross-functional team with a mandate to think differently
  • Hold in-person meetings away from your offices
  • Make it safe to challenge existing strategies and assumptions
  • Provide the team with stimuli from other industries
  • Commit to pilot the best ideas to test and learn from them

Semantics is an important enabler of change. A term that resonates with one culture could fall flat in another. Some words, like disruption, don’t spark opportunity, creativity or courage in most. ‘Choose your words carefully,’ is an adage that applies to change. The best term to motivate ‘game-changing’ improvement is the one that inspires the best innovative thinking.