Solving 21st Century Business Problems

Disruption? Innovation?

Have you seen the state of our more established organisations. Not pretty. Many are airless, soulless and uninspiring places. Some are not even that good. In many cases they’re producing outdated products and services. It’s inevitable that they are to be replaced by younger, fitter — more global payers operating at a fraction of their size.

What chance do we have if we aren’t actively disrupting?

David Rose of the Singularity University wrote famously — “Any organisation designed for success in the 20th Century is doomed to fail in the 21st. . .”

There’s some key words in that phrase — ‘designed’ and ‘success’. It’s because they were ‘designed’ to do something specifically 20 years ago, stuff like processes, policies and systems got baked in and then hardened like a diamond. The ‘success’ was a measure that’s wholly unrecognisable by today’s definition. To me this means if we aren’t being disrupted then we had better disrupt ourselves. That Would Spell REAL Disruption

On the first of January 2001 01:01:o1 — that’s 17 years ago — I left corporate life to do what I’m doing now — so much has changed. I disrupted myself. I deliberately left a soulless global firm of thousands to create a small and flexible team to work with disruption.

“Leaders are always asking for innovation but when pushed they don’t really want it. It brings about far too much risk. Innovation causes disruption that’s why it’s hard. I’ve always believed that disruption is just life. That’s it. . . ”

I only ever enjoy life through how it disrupts me and how I can in return disrupt. That’s the whole fun and sport of it. I don’t care that it’s hard. It gives me my soul back. It’s why I had to leave the stultifying corporate machine — what I learned from it informs every part of me. Dealing with disruption deliberately and positively contributes enormously to my life every day. Back then — in the corporate world — I was being groomed to fit into an inappropriate straight jacket.

Real Disruption Rarely Happens

Although more and more C-Suite executives say they accept the inevitability publicly — big corporates are built to withstand it. To them, it feels like risk and unpleasant, expensive and potentially disastrous to them. Not disrupting is far higher risk and expense. It can be game over.

I argue strongly that if they aren’t disrupting themselves then they are going to be disrupted out of existence.

Disruption? Hell Yeah

Ponder This Sentence:

‘The majority of our jobs are going to be replaced by Robots’

It turns out this phrase — the words — simply aren’t disruptive enough for us. You would be forgiven for assuming a ‘fact’ stated like that would have people scurrying about doing something. Anything. Well some are but the vast majority aren’t.

Whole swathes of people will be out of business because we can’t think our way through this level of disruption. The majority of leaders I talk to are doing precisely zero about it. That means they’re just waiting for it to happen to them. I’m finding it hard to meet anybody planning to do much (if anything) to combat this amount of disruption. What are businesses going to do about the enormous number of people and resources being displaced?

And it’s just one example.

A Silver Lining?

I know it’s a complicated one but in all of history such massive challenges have led to major innovation and opportunity. My point is it seems we let disruption happen to us rather than taking it by the horns.

Disruption doesn’t take sides. It doesn’t have some romantic predilection towards a particular human construct. It doesn’t decide to just pick like ‘cars’ or ‘the newspaper industry’. It declares its arrival just after it’s too late for most people. It arrives by unceremoniously blowing everything in its path to bits.

It takes every component that makes up what is ‘something’ today and messes it into oblivion.

We have a problem with words, and not just a few of them either. After a while some common words become highly abused. They can start feeling useless — tame and safe. They feel like we know them — we think we’ve got them down.

And after they become that common we see solutions, software, approaches and fixed attitudes grow up around them like weeds — and then we are truly doomed.

I don’t see disruption as a problem that needs to be solved. I see it as something that just exists and we need to embrace. I’ve always run my own business on a promise — ‘Let’s avoid solving the wrong problem really well. . .’ — the reason that’s important to me is because we often do.

Every meeting — dinner discussion, article or news briefing talks about disruption in one form or another. It raises emotions, hackles and questions. Just a few from the last couple of weeks —

“Is disruption a problem or an opportunity? Is it a passing phase? Is it an inconvenient truth that we can ignore? Have we even thought what it actually means? Do we ‘solve’ for disruption or is it a reality we should learn to live and work with? Does Disruption mean change or innovation that happens to us — in spite of us — and destroys everything we knew — or do we bring it in deliberately — embracing it so that we make a difference?. . .”

The challenge boils down to one thing — learn to embrace or use disruption on purpose — to manage or perturb the order of things.

Raising Questions

Answers intrigue me — especially the answers to the right questions — the ones that create value and make a difference.

I notice the word disruption has a polarising effect on leaders too. This falls into three broad categories.

  1. Many business leaders completely understand that they have to change.
  2. Many more are tackling disruption in the traditional ways with large and complex transformation programs.
  3. A significant proportion still think it doesn’t affect them and it will all go away. They think nothing needs to be done on their watch.

The problem is that so few really understand what they need to do or have the courage to do it. I wish I were paid by the numbers of leaders who nod and agree that they need to do something — but then do nothing. They see disruption in their midst and they freak or freeze.

Or — they convince themselves that their safe/sane vanilla change program is just disruptive enough.

We are dealing with a system

All systems are made up of components and they are all directly or indirectly linked to one another. A coral reef is a system. Every bit relies on every other bit. The many types of fish, the fronds of foliage, every piece of plankton or each particle of sunlight.

It’s all important.

All systems are subject to immensely powerful external dynamics. For example — as parts of the coral reef die, other parts flourish. It’s the same in business. products and services go out of fashion and new products and services get created.

The difference between the coral reef system or the business system — and success/survival — is the mindset of the leaders.

Bigger corporations are stuck. They seem to have lost the idea of the whole system. Like the business had when it was small — or now, when digitisation is making the whole business transparent to their customers.

The legacy attitude of the leadership has been to bullet proof the systems and processes. That led to cultures that are deeply ingrained. That means they are immune to progress and innovation.

  • The leaders of the business often don’t have all the parts in view.
  • They don’t understand that that’s crucial.
  • They don’t understand the reasons why a specific part is valuable, needs more or less support or needs to be allowed to die.

They don’t seem to know how it needs to function as external dynamics change. And change they will.

Getting to a systems view

We have to create a higher level of appreciation of the system. Leaders need to get comfortable about what it means and what it takes to build the system that can survive. Leaders need to know how disruption may affect them. It is actually going to affect every ‘thing’ and every ‘one’ in the organisation.

That means everyone has to upgrade their mindset and attitude. It means they have to know how to embrace the volatility and ambiguity of it all. But most importantly how that can be turned to their advantage.

If we can get leaders to appreciate that their business is a living system then we can get then to see that disruption isn’t limited to a convenient set of manageable parts. And then we can think and act differently.

For real disruption to happen it requires a top to bottom understanding and then readjustment of every area of business. A whole systems view.

The disruptive strategy is called preparedness

I’ve posited recently that the best definition of strategy is preparedness. I got to this because of the exponential change being brought to every day life and the effect on our previous systems. And given we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow — the best strategy is just to be prepared. No matter what.

Preparedness means that everyone in the enterprise understands their role in the system, what are they adjacent to and what that means, what may happen and what they need to do as a result, but this is a whole other article.

In summary, whilst easy to prove and demonstrate the positives of disruption, it has all but failed to enter the mindsets of businesses in the right way. If leaders don’t get that disruption is there to stay, to be understood and to be embraced as a whole system, then many businesses are going to slide off the cliff of complacency in the next few years.

And in many cases it’s right and natural that many do die. The big question is how we engage the attention and hearts and minds of leaders who want to ride the wave and come through.

We have to identify the leaders who get it and show them how to embrace disruption — not just shrug at the inconvenience of it all.

John Caswell is Founder of Group Partners a global practice using visual frameworks, structured and visual thinking techniques, to help clients to rethink their business challenges and opportunities.