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Deep Disruption (Part II): Three Key Insights For Igniting Creativity & Collaborative Sensemaking

March 1, 2015


With the massive, disorienting surge of digital technology and social sharing, organizations are forced to think more and more about managing disruption. But managing disruption is no longer enough.  These days, new tools and insights are needed in order for organizations to leverage disruption–and in so doing, unlock its deeper potential as a source of creativity and resilience.

This piece offers the following three key insights to help you get a jumpstart on that.

  1. Disruption has always been a normal part of life. By speeding things up, technology simply makes that fact unavoidable.
  2. Because disruption challenges familiar norms, it offers an opportunity to break from outdated, formalized routines to fresher, more integrative thinking.
  3. Disruption eats heroic solutions for breakfast; complex challenges call for problem-solving rooted in collaborative sensemaking.


Disruption: It’s Here To Stay; In Fact, It Never Went Away

Insight #1: Disruption has always been a normal part of life. By speeding things up, technology simply makes that fact unavoidable.

Voltaire once said “Everything is fine today, that is our illusion.” Thus, given the choice, who wouldn’t choose to avoid disruption? So it should be no surprise that some firms find the term so fraught with angst that they’ve actually banned uttering the word itself.

Yet, on the other end of the scale, thought leaders like Harvard’s Clayton Christensen  or James McQuivey have taken a different route and instead championed the idea that disruption is a critical tool for those seeking market dominance.

But despite appearances, disruption is not a new phenomena; infact, it’s always been here. Consider for instance that the ancient Greeks debated the issue of change vs. stability just as fiercely as we do today. For us, it may seem new, but that’s only because for thousands of years customs and institutions were so stable it was easy to believe that change was an isolated event. The only difference now is the frequency with which the illusion of stability is accosted.

This is why we need new thinking based on the notion of deep disruptiona broader approach to disruption that aims to dispel the angst by overturning the idea of change-as-the-exception. Deep disruption draws from those thinkers like Whitehead and Follett who saw disruption as an opportunity to engage with the natural, creative flow of life itself.

But as many are aware, seeing disruption as an asset flies right in the face of traditional organizational thinking. With its mad quest for perfect prediction and unshakable stability, modern management continues to operate from a 400-year-old mechanistic mindset that favors stability over change, rules over sensemaking, authority over experience.

Even nearly a century ago–as the height of the Taylor’s scientific management craze–some were calling for more responsive alternatives. In 1924 Mary Parker Follett saw that to be effective business needed a new way of thinking, one that saw disruption as a reservoir of renewal and creativity. She wrote “it is disruption which leads to fresh and more fruitful unitings”.

With the emergence of social business practices we now have the change to leverage the fruits of disruption. By offering platforms for both customers and workforce share ideas and insights, disruption becomes a portal for a kind of collaborative sensemaking that brings together diverse perspectives. In turn, this results in new ways of seeing challenges and approaching opportunities.


Disruption: A Gateway To New Thinking

Insight #2: Because disruption challenges familiar norms, it offers an opportunity to break from outdated, formalized routines to fresher, more integrative thinking.

Way back in 1911, the father of modern management, Frederick Taylor prescribed the following approach for dealing with breakdowns and inefficiencies:

…there is always one method and one implement which is quicker and better than any of the rest. And this one best method and best implement can only be discovered or developed through a scientific study and analysis of all of the methods and implements in use. (p. 9)

This “one right way” thinking is the product of the mechanistic assumptions upon which modern management thinking is built. Given the assumption that there is only one right way (which, coincidently, is usually the same right way advocated by senior management), it follows that any disruption to that one right way, left unchecked, will trigger widespread angst and the system’s eventual collapse.

However, as we’ve heard, mechanist, one right way thinking is simply useless in the face of the complex, highly ambiguous challenges common to a knowledge-based economy.

Consider, for example, Morgan’s point that

If a system has a sufficient degree of internal complexity, randomness and diversity and instability become resources for change.  New order is a natural outcome. (p. 252)

But cultivating such an order, requires a clean break from modern management’s rationalist ideal of knowledge creation. As I wrote previously,

Valid knowledge is based on rational thought that allows for order, stability, and the control of outcomes. Any knowledge based on collective experience or emotions is flawed as it is highly subjective and contextual.

Thus we see how traditional approaches to knowledge management can view randomness and diversity as distractions or even threats. If a system depends upon predictablity and order for its survival, nonrational or subjective knowledge will only undermine the status quo.

And this is exactly why, more than ever, we need this kind of subversive thinking. Not only do organizations need new ideas, they need new platforms for generating them.

And therein lies the beauty of social.


Disruption: Out With Heroicism & In With Social Sensemaking

Insight #3: Disruption eats heroic solutions for breakfast; complex challenges call for problem-solving rooted in collaborative sensemaking.

Einstein said “No problem can be solved by the same kind of thinking that created it.” The beauty of social business is in the power of connection; that connection, if properly framed, can generate more effective ideas along with new ways of collaborative thinking that hold the potential of transcending the complexity of the problems they address.

As we see how social business has developed so far, we see preliminary indications of the emergence of new, more socially-connected forms of thinking. As an example, Ted Coiné and Mark Babbitt make the case that enterprise intergration of social platforms is about far more than information sharing; it’s about developing a new, more open relationships between and amongst customers and employees. Here we see collaborative knowledge-sharing as the newly emergent norm.

Thus, we can quickly set aside the notion that social business is only about giving everyone an equal say. It’s about so much more more than that. By giving voice to new thinking that goes beyond the Tayloresque one right way mindset, social sharing is a clear indication of more dynamic and distributed modes of idea generation. In this way rapidly emerging collaborative platforms signal the development of more complex responses to disruption based upon more complex forms of collaborative sensemaking.

Thus business’s integration of social platforms offers the promise of more diverse and distributed ways of making sense of the world.  As the disruptions grow ever more confounding and the sugar pill of Voltaire’s “Everything is fine today” grows ever more precarious, humans must cultivate ways of understanding each other and the world that go beyond the familiar patterns and tap into new systems of thought we can only manifest together.

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!”


The 3 Crumbling Pillars of Modern Management

January 29, 2015


As I survey mainstream organizational practices for the past 100 years, these are the principles I see underscoring nearly all mainstream leadership models and approaches to organizational change:

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.

2. Valid knowledge is based on rational thought that allows for order, stability, and the control of outcomes. Any knowledge based on collective experience or emotions is flawed as it is highly subjective and contextual.

3. To be effective, human action should produce order, stability, and
intended outcomes. Such action is assured through adherance to universal rules and rational planning.

Here we can easily see the influence of Cartesian thinking and the notion of a mechanistic universe. Even with those models considered “more progressive”, such as servant leadership, or self-directed teams, when you scratch below the surface, you find these same three principles.


The interesting thing is, looking at these practices throughout the 20th century, we also see the quiet but growing emergence of a so-called “counternarrative” of organizational thinking.


The earliest, and perhaps boldest, example of this counternarrative is in the writing of Mary Parker Follett. Writing in the 1920s–a time when Frederick Taylor’s “Scientific Management” movement was in full swing–Follett’s work is nothing short of revelatory.


Taking on the notion of an orderly universe that was understood through rational thinking and implemented through proper planning, Follett believed that, to be effective, management had to acknowledge the world’s inherenent complexity. Unlike Taylor, and nearly every other thinker of her day, Follett saw the world as a dynamic, ever-evolving creative process that was demanded strategey based upon collective self-discovery.


While management practices rooted in the three constraining pillars remained the widely accepted norm not only throughout the 20th century, but well into the 21st as well, what we also see is a slow but growing infiltration of more organic, humanistic influences vis a vis Follett.


Systems theory, Senge’s Learning Organization model, and complexity-based management theory all represented efforts to introduce a more dynamic, evolving worldview modern management practices.


As we now are starting to contend with disruption on an heretofore unimaginable scale we will see the emergence of even more radical advancements in organizational theory. While the particular shape or form of these models remains unclear, there is little doubt such advancements will need to go far beyond traditional task-structuring, power-distribution practices.


Instead we will need management thinking that addresses the radical developments not just in workplace practices but in personal identity. As we thinking about what each one of us is experiencing through the tsumani of digital disruption, the need for such new thinking should be clear.


We need a new awareness of organizations and management that do far more than what the thinking in these domains has done before; we need thinking that takes on our evolving relationship, not only to the workplace, but to each other and the world at large.


This means that–by necessity–organizational thinking has to begin accomodating fundamental human processes such as our rapidly evolving relationship to dialogue, and how our shifting notions of change and causality have now created an entirely new work environment than what we could have imagined even a generation ago.

Our un-killable mechanistic thinking warps organizations’ awareness of human behavior

January 7, 2015



This is from a piece I posted recently on my Tumblr (check out the feed) taken from a passage of my literature review.

Given the growing interest in forward-thinking topics like the Future of Work and new ways of thinking about organizations, I thought it both fitting and important to shine some light on those remnants from the past we can’t seem to shake that continue to hold us back.

One of our biggest–and oft undiscussed–challenges in 21st century organizations centers on our largely antequated understanding of human behavior and social processes. The critical weakness appears source from our 400 year-old mechanistic understanding of the universe. Enlightenment thinkers, particularly Descartes and Newton, started from a premise that the physical universe operated like a giant clock.

And while there was ample evidence–at least from the perspective of the 17th century–pointing to the notion that the natural world operated in a mechanistic fashion, there was no evidence to support the belief that human or social behavior operated according to these same principles.

Yet, that lack of evidence did not stop key thinkers from quickly projecting the same kind of mechanistic cause-and-effect thinking onto the human psyche. In fact, this worldview is so deeply ingrained in our way of thinking that most people don’t even consider that these views are a vast set of sensemaking constructions created by human beings; instead these assumption are simply taken to be the way the world IS.

Now, centuries later, we remain largely stuck in this same way of thinking about humans and what motivates them. In a world now defined by lightning-fast communication and highly networked knowledge-sharing processes, the results of our largely-mechanistic mindset toward causality and human behavior grow increasily disastrous.

So, a short passage from the lit review:

This turn to an exclusively-mechanistic worldview demanded an understanding of cause and effect that could insure a much higher standard of reliability than that previously afforded by Aristotle. Aristotle’s theory of Four Causes, while broad and encompassing, was far from precise as evidenced by Aristotle’s own admission that his attention was centered on phenomena that happened “for the most part”. For Descartes, whose aim was to establish a worldview that could ensure precise prediction and certainty in all domains of human experience, causal explanations that held “for the most part” were far too susceptible to what some would consider the perils of interpretation and uncertainty. Given such an agenda, Aristotle’s views, dominant up until that time, now proved far too broad and ambiguous to satisfy the growing thirst for predictability and control.

Descartes’s mechanistic understanding of the universe helped foster an equally radical shift in society’s understanding of the individual and how each person related to the larger mechanistic operation of the cosmos. In following the turn towards a more rational, mechanistic conception of the universe, this new view of human beings and human agency privileged the individual and individual action over contextual, temporal, or collective influences (Gergen, 2010, p. xiv). Through his new philosophy, Descartes’ made a clean break with Medieval thought and its restrictive view the individual as a product of ecclesiastical doctrine or feudal interests.

Descartes mechanistic universe, while offering affording a rationale for humans to “act in an intentional, predictable and responsible manner towards predetermined goals or planned outcomes” (Caldwell, 2005, p. 85), helped to establish what Juarrero (2011) refers to as “a worldview that held out the very attractive promise of absolute control” (p. 156). While deterministic thinking helped human beings understand and predict phenomena in the physical universe, it was quickly and without question applied to almost all other phenomena, including social interactions. As Colarelli (2003) has noted “the idea that mechanism applied to social phenomena was accepted before there was any evidence that social phenomena operated in this manner” (p. 11). This quick conflation in which human processes were assumed to be bound by the same mechanistic principles observed in the material world , “laid the groundwork for a social science directed toward increasingly accurate prediction and control of human behavior” (Gergen, 2010, p. 65).


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