In today’s turbulent world, most organizations face the prospect of continual disruption, sometimes called reinvention, transformation, agility, renewal, revitalization, repurposing, and so forth. Often disruption feels daunting because it requires massive change and replacing old routines with new unfamiliar patterns.
Having been involved through research and personal experience (for longer than I want to admit—decades) in organizations, leadership, and individual disruptions, and having a passion for simplicity, let me demystify disruption by distinguishing it into three phases with a few tips about each phase (in less than one thousand words) to hopefully make disruption more approachable.
A: Why (What’s So)?
1. Understand the context. When people understand the context that explains why things happen, they more readily accept what should be done and how it should be done. More simply, content (what and how) is king, but the context is the kingdom (why). Following this logic, disruption starts by understanding the context and impetuses for change. There are dozens of future-of-work presentations available that share trends that will disrupt business. For example, I like the work by Paolo Gallo, who has a wonderful summary of digital, social, and other trends. For organization, leadership, or personal disruption, answering why disruption matters by understanding context is important to define real change and sustainable change outcomes.
2. Focus outside-in. Most organization, leadership, or employee disruptions occur inside oneself or a business, but they are sustained when they have an impact on others outside like an organization’s customers and investors. This outside-in focus captures why disruption matters with the question: “Why will our/my disruption deliver value to those we/I serve?” I began my career starting “inside-out” (if we build it they will come); now I tend to start “outside-in” (anticipate and add value to external stakeholders). Both have to be done, as shown in figure 1. But an outside-in focus offers a sustainable why for disruption.
Understanding the context and focusing outside provide a rationale for why disruption matters. Combined, these agendas provide a clear description of “what’s so” as a baseline for disruption.
If the reason for disruption is clear and accepted (answering the why based on context and outside-in thinking), figuring out the outcomes of disruption (what or so what?) then becomes important. My colleagues and I have found that there are three generic outcomes of disruption, which can be sequenced as in figure 2.
3. Turnaround. Turnaround disruption means shedding costs and removing complexity. Disruption resulting in efficiency generally requires bold and decisive choices to manage all costs through activities like reengineering processes, simplifying products or services, managing labor productivity, and attending to capital investments. Turnaround disruption also comes from turning complexity into simplicity in mission, strategy, products, services, and governance.
4. Transform. Transformation disruption means creating new patterns for growth by establishing new organization capabilities or personal competencies that meet future needs. The organizational outcome is a new identity both in the marketplace and workplace. The leadership outcome of transformation disruption is a new set of skills that enable leaders to respond to new situations. Turnaround often precedes transformation, just like a field is cleared before planting new crops.
5. Assimilate. Assimilation disruption means embedding a new agenda throughout an organization through helping employees take personal ownership for it and creating shared commitment from all stakeholders. For leadership or personal transformation, new desired behaviors are sustained by creating new patterns. Employees internalize, claim, and own the disruption as “theirs,” not something done to them by their leaders.
Determining which type of outcome your disruption will accomplish will help you focus attention and resources. They tend to be sequential, so you can also build on one to the other.
C: How (Now What)?
Once the why (what’s so) and what (so what) of disruption are enacted, the challenge then becomes making the desired outcomes happen. The how (now what) of disruption requires attention to both the content of change (e.g., how to select the right actions that make change happen) and the process of change (e.g., how to build acceptance to the change).
6. Have a menu of levers for change. We have found that a host of levers exist for making disruption happen. These levers are governance mechanisms and organization practices that turn aspirations into actions. We have worked with many levers for change that can be seen as a menu of actions including structure, right culture, positive accountability, information, talent, work, and leadership. It is often difficult to know which menu items to start with. We have found that business and HR leaders can select from this menu of actions those that have the highest impact and are easiest to implement. This prioritization guides initial actions that can build on each other.
7. Manage the process of disruption. To gain buy-in and acceptance of disruption by those affected by it, it is important to attend to how disruption happens (or the process of disruption). This process includes knowing when and how to involve people, inspiring them, and starting simple.
These seven disruption tips demystify the why, what, and how of disruption (see figure). If you chunk disruption into phases with actions at each phase, then disruption is not overwhelming, but doable. This plan of approach may be applied to organization, leader, HR (or other function), and individual disruption. In applying these disruption tips, business leaders are ultimately the owners who take primary accountability and responsibility for making disruption happen; HR professionals are the architects who design and facilitate the process.