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Deep Disruption: New Insight For Social Era Organizations (Part 1)

February 10, 2015

There’s little argument that, for organizations of all kinds, disruption is now a critical topic of conversation. As the digital networking of nearly everything in our lives rapidly errodes any notion of “business as usual”, more than ever we’re forced confront the unexpected. However, for many, this growing experience of disruption pushes us to confront a unsettling irony; that is, while disruption has become an increasinly pervasive part of our lives, recent discussions on the topic view it as heroic strategy to insure dominance and stability.

This approach not only limits organizations’ ability work with their people, it subverts valuable opportunities to strengthen resilience and build the kind of shared awareness that will generate greater opportunity and innovation.

Welcome To The Era of Disruptive Innovation

While the dictionary defines “disruption” as that which “breaks apart or alters so as to prevent normal or expected functioning”, I’m seeing a bastion of industry experts approaching the topic quite differently. For example, Harvard’s Clayton Chistensen champions a very different view of disruption. Though his framework for “disruptive innovation“, Christensen proposes a view of “disruption” as a visionary stategy aimed at capturing market share.

Despite increasinly vocal critiques (here and here), this approach has helped make “disruption” one of the decade’s primary business buzzwords–albeit in a narrowly-defined way.

What I find missing in all this recent talk is much consideration the broader dimensions of disruption–such as unintended upheaval, unexpected tragedy, mistakes, miscalculation, human error, etc., etc. Throughout history, important thinkers have viewed this kind of disruption as an opportunity for insight and creative expansion.

Instead, organizations seem to believe that disuption, as they see it, is valued just so long as it supports established expectations or strategic objectives. And when it doesn’t, someone is surely to blame!

It’s time we started talking about disruption from a broader perspective.


It’s About an Outdated Worldview

I’ve previously discussed there are three long-standing beliefs now derailing modern management’s ability to adapt to a world where rapid change and unexpected turbulence are the norms. The first of those beliefs is

1. The universe was designed as an orderly, mechanistic system where permanence and stability are the norms. Change and/or disruption is an irregular event and indicate a breakdown in the natural, intended order.

For most managers, struggling to meet objectives and keep everyone happy, this stability-seeking worldview translates into a workday mindset that goes something like this:

  • This organization can only be effective if conditions are stable and orderly.
  • My job is to make sure sure things stay that way.
  • So when things aren’t that way, I need to use my authority to enforce more control because…
  • Someone screwed up or is working against me.

In all fairness, it makes sense that most managers would think this way when everyone around them, including top management, thinks and reacts in the same way. In fact, for most manages–even if they wanted to adopt a more open attitude about disruption–the pressures to follow traditional thinking and maintain order are enormous. But as history shows us, this is not the only way to think about disruptive events.


A (not so) New Way To Think About Disruption

There’s another way to think about disruptive conditions that that I’m now calling deep disruption. While the concept of deep disruption itself is not new, the term is needed in order to distinguish the notion from how many organizations now think about disruption. In contrast to the view of disruption as a kind of bold strategic intiative, deep disruption goes beyond strategic tactic and instead points to the underlying, nonlinear essence of life itself.

To better understand deep disruption let’s look way, way back to 500BC or so–that’s a couple hundred years before thinkers like Socrates and Aristotle. Around this time most people thought of the world a fixed, stable place, but a gentleman named Heraclitus proposed a very different view of the world and the role of disruption .  Rather than seeing disruption as an unwelcome mishap, Heraclitus saw it as the natural state of things, a creative force underlying the whole universe. From his perpsective change and conflict were not problems at all, but instead reflected the natural flow out of which the new and creative were constantly emerging.

Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed…. Cool things become warm, the warm grows cool….It is in changing that things find repose.

However in coming back to the future and all the challenges and demands we now face on a daily basis, it would be easy to think that Heraclitus’s view of things is nice thought, but quaintly outdated. But we should not be so quick.


Deep Disruption and Modern Management

As we know, today modern management is closely wedded to a mechanistic view of reality.  A central premise of this mindset is a belief in rational causality, i.e., events should flow smoothly in a logical chain of cause and effect relationships. Given this assumption, it is easy to understand why we would then assume that, in today’s world, anything of value or imporance could only emerge through a kind of “disruption-free” process of planning and execution.

However, as Claudio Ciborra has deftly pointed out, this is far from the case. In his amazing book The Labyrinths of Information: Challenging the Wisdom of Systems, Ciborra makes the point that some of the most important innovations of our era have emerged through highly disruptive processes. Unintended errors, random experimentation, patchwork solutions, and blind chance have all played a central role in the emergence of some of our most valued innovations.

One of his central examples is the development of the internet which, as we know,  started out as a way for government scientists to share information. Later on, of course, it became much, much more.

After detailing a number of similar examples, Ciborra summarizes his point by saying that

At a closer look, all these cases emphasize the discrepancy between, on the one hand, ideal methodologies and plans and, on the other, the realities of implementation, where chance, serendipity, trial and error, or even gross negligence seem to play a major role in shaping systems that will become of strategic importance and reference, but only after the fact. (pp. 39-40)

So there is ample reason to believe that a deeper awareness of disruption and how to work with that is needed.  For organizations of all kinds, the challenge becomes how to do that while still attending to the many rational, linear processes that remain critical for effective operations. That’s a topic I’ll take on in Part 2 of this posting.


Putting It Into Action

By now it should be clear that, to meet the challenges we now face, a broader awareness of disruption is needed. Going beyond popular tenets of “disruptive innovation”, an awareness of deep disruption would afford organizations with the mindset needed to engage with the uncertainty and ambiguity that increasing define the emerging social era.

But even beyond this awareness, what we also need are methods of practice. As I’ll detail in the next piece, the key is in developing a new, more integrative ways of understanding our own thinking process and how we communicate that with those around us. Ciborra points to exactly that when he suggests that “technology may require us to speak another language, less formal and structured, more fragmented and oriented to recombination” (p. 26).

For some companies, like IBM, this process of recombination is well underway and bearing fruit. For others, sadly, there is instead a wide-spread disappointment that things aren’t like the used to be along with an unremitting frustration that “someone screwed up or is working against me!”


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