The Disruption is Now
For years, I have participated in conversations about The Disruption looming on the horizon. Let’s go to one of the most disruptive innovations of our modern era to get a definition for disruptive innovation; Wikipedia says, “In business, adisruptive innovation is an innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market-leading firms, products, and alliances.” This is contrasted with evolutionary innovations – basically small improvements on themargins that accumulate over time – and revolutionary innovations which are unexpected and potentially large but actually don’t fundamentally modify thebasic business model or markets. Before we go any farther, is anyone going to argue whether or not Wikipedia itself is a disruptor? Because I’m happy to take that one on… Okay.
Wiki itself doesn’t define ‘disruptive change’ though possibly I should could or will write that entry. There are many articles on the topic available ranging from Forbes and HBR to consultancies here there and everywhere. For now, let’s go with the definition according to Toast: “A disruptive change is one that creates entirely new ways of work, organisational culture, leadership behaviours, and/or people engagement models that eventually disrupts the existing work environment, displacing established organisational norms, communication modalities, structural hierarchies, and employee behavioural guidelines.” And here too, we can contrast a disruptive change with one that is evolutionary – small changes on the margin that add up to something big – and revolutionary changes which sort of land in our laps but which fundamentally don’t change how people work.
To build the idea, we need examples. An evolutionary change might be thegradually increasing inclusivity of people of colour and women. I know that’s ahot take that people will probably want to challenge. Fundamentally, however, the absorption of formally marginalised communities into the work place has largely not changed underlying social, structural, or economic principles within individual economic and governmental institutions. It’s been amazing for thepeople involved, and I’m not going to push back at all on the tremendous social and economic value of these changes. However, the CEO is still at the top, thejanitor is still at the bottom; Power, money, information, organisational design, all of it changed bit by bit but only gradually, some would say painfully slowly. People still gather at the water cooler, attend meetings, bitch about the boss behind her back. Incrementally over time, however, we see a slow evolutionary change in how people interact as different cultural and gender norms start to percolate out through the systems and modify the entire landscape bit by bit. I’d argue the entire movement towards ‘inclusive leadership’, reducing and in some cases even replacing authoritarian, command and control relationships, is a clear evolutionary change flowing from increased workforce diversity.
An example of a revolutionary change which felt huge in the moment, but which fundamentally didn’t change a damn thing, was the wholesale adoption of open plan offices and hot desking. The promise was big, the actual implementation annoying as all hell to most of us, but ultimately nothing really changed. Again, look at organisational design, power structures, information flow… all the same. It felt like a bomb went off but when you get right down to it, all that changed is that we differentially empowered extroverts over their introverted brethren, created a surprising number of entirely dysfunctional work spaces, and saved ashit ton of money on office space. People still basically work exactly as they did before but with cleaner desks, less privacy, and lower productivity.
But a disruptive change… what does that look like? For many of us older folk, probably the biggest in our lifetimes is the introduction of the personal computer. That literally changed everything. Entire categories of employment vanished. Email killed the primary communication channel, the interoffice memo, almost overnight. The personal secretary became an elite luxury of only the most senior employee, and the rest of us started taking all our own phone messages, managing our own schedule, typing our own reports. Most significantly, all of us started producing an absolutely astonishing amount of CONTENT. As a species, we create in one year more total information/data than in all of previous human history. New economies sprung into existence, new industries, new career paths, entirely new operating models. That’s adisruptive change.
Here is my challenge to us old people staring the looming wave of post-Millennial workers in the face. These are the first humans born with a device in their hands and they represent the potential for disruptive change. These ‘kids’ are already leaving college and entering the work force. They bring with them awhole set of behaviours and assumptions about how information works both for and against them that require us to adapt. Social science suggests that their brains are wired differently. This isn’t hyperbole. This isn’t an old lady screaming, “Kids these days.” While demonstrably still human with the standard distribution of bell curves of intelligence, creativity, intro/extroversion and thelike, it’s also clear that as a generation they think very differently. Communications methods, leadership behaviours, professional preferences for development and institutional versus individual loyalty, decision making, culture, mindset, social engagement are all new and potentially disruptive… Not revolutionary, not evolutionary – disruptive.
Because this generational shift is not a technology change, it can be harder to grasp how dramatically these different preferences will modify our ways of work, but we’d be foolish not to start preparing. Those of you digging your heels in – resisting corporate social networks, collaboration tools like Slack or MS Teams, team virtualisation, gamification, flat information hierarchies, flatter decision-making structures – you’re like That Guy who made his secretary type his emails until the day he retired leaving in his wake an entire generation snickering at him. The disruptive change isn’t coming; it’s here. Power, information, money, status – all the things that determine outcomes in human organisations – are in play here with the organisations of the future very probably distributing the juicy toys differently. I for one welcome our junior, sustainability-ninja, Instagraming overlords, but they do take getting used to.
“Times of crisis, of disruption or constructive change, are not only predictable, but desirable. They mean growth. Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear the most.” ~ Fyodor Dostoevsky
* This blog triggered by a far better and more thorough article on Inside HR.