The Slow Creep Of Disruption

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Very seldom does disruption just show up unannounced.  In fact, very often it has made its presence known far prior, only it just seems to be waiting backstage, gathering the support and momentum that will allow it to grab the headlines and then take center stage.

As an example of this slow creep of disruption, I walked into my nearby Sam’s Club yesterday and there was an obvious change to the checkout system.  From a ratio of eight cashiers and two self-checkout stations, they had shifted to six check-out stations and down to four cashiers.  While it may have caught me off-guard, it was not what many would consider disruptive in the least.  But for me, that shift from ten cashier stations years ago, to then eight cashier stations and two self-checkout stations, and now to six self-checkout stations and only four cashiers stations is, for me, a representation of the slow creep of disruption that we are currently seeing across society.  The type of disruption you don’t notice until it is already upon you and/or your organization.  The type of disruption that you may notice and recognize as occurring, but does not register as threat of deep change until it’s too late and/or urgency of change is required.

However, it is a phenomena we have seen throughout the ages…

Take the telephone, for example, “What use could this company make of an electrical toy?”  -William Orton, President of Western Union in 1876.

Or the television, “Television won’t be able to hold onto any market it captures acer the first six months.  People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”  -Daryl Zanuck, co-founder of 20th Century Fox

Or the computer, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”  -Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation

Or Google, “Google’s not a real company.  It’s a house of cards.”  -Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft

Or Netflix and Redbox, “Neither Redbox nor Netflix are even on the radar screen in terms of competition.”  -Jim Keyes, CEO of Blockbuster

Or Airbnb, “We have not seen a direct effect (from Airbnb) in any of our hotels.”  -Richard Jones, Senior VP and COO of Hospitality Ventures Management Group

It’s like the idea of the overnight success.  It is a slow creep that hits suddenly.  Much like in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises in which they ask the character “How did you go bankrupt?” for which the answer comes as “Gradually, then suddenly.”

But even though we see it coming, it doesn’t always register, for a variety of reasons.  Whether it be that we don’t want it to happen, we don’t believe it will happen, or it seems improbable that it will ever happen.

Disruption often comes through a lack of awareness and/or willingness to see or acknowledge that change is occurring and then realizing it will most likely have an impact on our individuals and our organization.  Disruption is often in an unwillingness or awareness to prepare, for change is coming.

Too often, we don’t feel the necessity or urgency to or for change, either individually or organizationally.  We allow our past successes to serve as an imaginary insulator that tells us that we survived changes in the past, just as we will survive changes in the present and the future.  It is that “this too shall pass” attitude towards the disruptive forces knocking at the door and standing on the horizon that moves us away and disengages us from the proactive urgency that allows an organization to meet these headwinds of change straight on.

The slow creep of disruption always seems sudden when it kicks in, because that is usually the time when we begin entering the elbow of the curve, the time that we see the exponential shift, when we turn from the “gradually, to suddenly.”  Which often becomes our reality due to lack of awareness or willingness to believe, well before the curve or “suddenly” is upon us, that it this change is coming or even happening over time.

Instead of determining how external change can and often does require our own internal shift or change, we take a “baton down the hatches” approach to disruption and hope that it does not have effect on us or our organization.  Or, in many ways…

We try to insulate, instead of determining how to change and innovate.

Moving past our insulating and “baton down the hatches” tendencies to look towards finding opportunity in the midst of the chaos that often surrounds any type of disruptive shift is vital.  Vital that we use those change forces to fill, rather than deflate our sails.  Or as the quotes says…

“Not all storms come to disrupt your life, some come to clear your path.”

We must then begin to realize that change, often disruptive and accelerated, is definitely upon us and our organizations.  The lifetime of today’s Fortune 500 companies has dropped from 75 years in the past to 15 years or less in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environments.  Requiring a whole new level of individual and organizational agility, adaptability and learnability.  As Pierre Nanterme, CEO of Accenture shares, in example of today’s digital disruptive creep, “Digital is the main reason just over half of the companies on the Fortune 500 have disappeared since the year 2000.”  As Robert J. Shiller of Yale University adds, “We cannot wait until there are massive dislocations in our society to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

In many ways, there will be not only a period of initiating to the speed of today’s world and how quickly change occurs, but a time of new learning, requiring reskilling and upskilling, all preceded by a time of necessary unlearning.

As Mark Bonchek shares in the HBR article Why the Problem with Learning is Unlearning, “The problem isn’t learning: it’s unlearning.  In every aspect of business, we are operating with mental models that have grown outdated or obsolete…”  For which Bonchek shares that the process of unlearning has three parts:

  • First, you have to recognize that the old mental model is no longer relevant or effective.
  • Second, you need to find or create a new model that can better achieve your goals.
  • Third, you need to ingrain the new mental habits.

In this process of unlearning, Bonchek reminds us, “So as you being unlearning, be patient with yourself – it’s not a linear process.”  For which he adds, “In this time of transformative change, we need to be conscious of our mental models and ambidextrous in our thinking.”

Awareness and preparation are critical as we orient ourselves with the deep changes and exponential shifts that we see happening across society,  as well as the pace at which they are occurring.  As Gary Coleman of Deloitte Consulting shares, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution is still in its nascent state.  But with the swift pace of change and disruption to business and society, the time to join in is now.”  For which Meg Whitman, President and CEO of Hewlitt-Packard Enterprise adds, “You can always go faster than you think you can.”

Which will require not just continual investment in strategies and structures that allow for the sustaining of best practices, but engaging in the experimental, discovery learning that moves us and our organizations into next practices.  It will be those mindset shifts that will allow our individuals and organizations to continuously improve and evolve more relevantly into a very non-obvious future.

“Status quo – you know – is Latin for ‘the mess we’re in.'”  -Ronald Reagan

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