An Incumbent’s Guide To Productive Disruption – Part 2

IBM’s Angela Bates asks, ‘how can you become an incumbent disruptor?’

In my previous article, I wrote about how now is the time for incumbent organisations to strike back against the crashing waves of disruption threatening their survival; and how disruption should not be feared and cursed – but should be your joy, your inspiration and motivation.

Successful companies looking to reinvent themselves are dancing with — not running away from — disruption. I discussed how connecting with your software developers and investing in ‘New Collar’ digital talent can help you implement agile solutions to counter disruption from outside your business. You might also seek new ventures and collaborate on innovation generated outside your organisations as well, such as projects with (or acquisition of) startups, partners or even competitors.

I then discussed the digital journey that successful incumbent organisations travel to get closer to their customers. New waves of technology such as Artificial Intelligence used to glean meaningful insight from legacy data is the new secret weapon against disruption. The vast quantities of data generated by your company, together with data extracted from external sources such as social media, Internet of Things devices and video; coupled with new digital routes to market is a complexity that startups could only dream of solving. Legacy companies are now in a perfect position to leverage their data and resources to make investments in innovative projects that harness these crown jewels.

However, to be successful you will need to invest in more than the tech and the startups…

A company’s internal culture tends to move in a linear way whilst technology moves exponentially, and without efforts to create an internal culture that can embrace and adapt to technological change, all your efforts will come to naught.

Culture is the number one impediment to innovation. And innovation the main weapon against disruption.

It is widely understood that collaboration is the surest path to innovation and spans institutions and industries. Teams focused on disruption, once locked in place, can now assemble on the fly and move in a flash from new insights to smart experimentation and faster action.

But this new way of working is uncomfortable for many — disruption is always uncomfortable.

As someone tasked with ‘inserting tension’ into the mainstreams of business within my own organisation, I’ve encountered personalities and corporate structures (such as pay scales, performance incentives, hiring rules), at the highest levels that intentionally or unintentionally prevent the status quo from changing.

As an employee tasked with disruption you’ll experience many cultural barriers preventing you implementing disruptive projects.

You will meet some Big Egos — as disruptors of our own organisations, we must confront and challenge divisive, individualistic and competitive attitudes, structures and practices, or our work will likely be diminished. Being strong has never been so important. Lean on your expertise and experience, don’t be bound by it.

You will have Major Doubts — it takes courage to be as honest about what we don’t know as what we know. It can feel uncomfortable at first to respond your General Manager’s question by saying ‘I don’t know if this is going to work’. It’s also not easy to stand by your expertise in the face of companies that are focused on risk management for exclusion rather than inclusion. It’s essential to fight complacency (the ‘it’s not broke so don’t fix it’ attitudes).

We sometimes need to push back to push forward

To help you through these doubts, build relationships with your team, your colleagues and managers at a personal level to build the trust to allow you the breathing space to transform your area of business. It’s also essential to work hard and stand shoulder to shoulder with them in tough moments.

You will face Ethical Dilemmas — as disruptors, our work is ethically complex. It can do good, but it also has potential to cause harm. When we switch on a new channel, like Software-as-a-Service and Pay-as-you-go payment methods, enabling customers to decide for themselves which software they use and to pay only for what they use can hurt existing channels. Those highly paid sales staff with mortgages to pay and kids to feed; those revenue streams from fat annual licences can slowly stop. It is sometimes painful to at first transport your business to a place that feels like the antithesis of where you’ve been.

It’s essential to be honest and thorough with your business case to be clear about the impact of your project . This will include the  impact on your competitors, but also the impact on the internal workings of your organisation.

Drawing from IBM’s 19th edition of its annual C-Suite study, which has collected data and insights from more than 40,000 interviews dating back to 2003, the characteristics of the most successful legacy companies (AKA The Re-inventors) are that they aren’t daunted by the change happening around them. They’re confident in their foresight: 81 per cent of Re-inventors report that their leadership has a strong understanding of the direction in which their industry is heading,

There are lots of ways that companies are trying to initiate and drive cultural change within legacy businesses, including moving the software concept of Agile development into business, adopting it as a key leadership trait and a mode of injecting energy and speed into projects.

What’s clear, is that for incumbents to win, the ability to change fast is now the oxygen that fuels success.

How to stay productive in a disruptive environment

The ability to change fast is now the oxygen that fuels success.

Even if your company’s culture supports disruption, at a personal level how can you stay productive — and sane — when everything around you is changing?

Ask yourself — can I fix that?

I work in a part of a large organisation tasked with ‘inserting tension’ into mainstreams of the business. This is exhausting work, where there is no shortage of jobs to be done or problems to be solved.

However, there’s only one of me. And there are just a few amazing Developer Advocates in the team. Being a practical, pragmatic bunch, we can fix a lot of things, but we need to pick the right problems first. The right problems for us are:

  • those that excite us, fill us with an inner energy and play to our natural super powers (AKA our combined expertise, accumulated life experiences and natural abilities).
  • the challenges we really care about — some things just aren’t worth arguing about
  • the ones that can deliver tangible results — metrics, events and activities you can photograph, post on social media, report in terms of numbers and volume — these speak louder than all the plans in the world.

Talk to someone who is not exactly like you

If you are having trouble working on a problem, talk with someone who works in a different industry or is an expert at something you are not. Seek out advice from someone of a different gender, ethnicity, race, or age and you are more likely to have breakthrough ideas. Meetups are great for this.

Enjoy the puzzle of limitation

Being a disruptor often means drawing on everything you know to be creative in an environment that is under funded, and under resourced. Think about your constraints for a moment — not as barriers to your ability to innovate, but instead as a puzzle that holds the opportunity for Great Work.

For example, do you know how many building combinations are possible with just six regular eight-stud Lego bricks? According to Mathematician Søren Eilers, there are 900 million different ways six Lego blocks can be put together… Who’d have thought that such constraint could open up such possibility?

So get to love your constraints: we actually need them.

Re-invention never ends.

As new opportunities — some of them disruptive — emerge, the organisations that remain open to change can orchestrate advantage.To uncover your organisation’s next advantage, consider these actions.

1. Dance with disruption and seek new ventures

  • Don’t solidify a competitive advantage; it’s likely fleeting.
  • Embrace startups, nurture your software developers and digital talent

2. Use your competitive advantage

  • Use your data, together with AI and your expertise to build trusted bonds with customers. Invest in projects that build customer insights, then invest in projects that build trust at a personal level — such as Advocacy.

3. Build nimble teams and a collaborative culture

  • This can be achieved via co-creation with customers, partners and even competitors.

Large enterprises have an opportunity to stave off waves of digital disruption, but only if they realise that their greatest asset is now their data. When combined with their expertise, this becomes their greatest strength.

Find out more about how you can be an incumbent disruptor by downloading the IBM C-Suite Study.

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