Disrupt or Be Disrupted. Pick One.

Nearly two years ago, my friend Jeff De Cagna wrote a series of posts for ASAE’s blog (remember Acronym!?) about Umair Haque’s book, The New Capitalist Manifesto. Jeff started the series with a point about disruption. Apparently that’s the question Umair will ask a leadership group within an organization who wants to succeed in today’s world:

Do you want to be one of the disruptors, or do you want to be one of the disrupted?

This question is even more important today. In fact, if you are a CEO today and you’re NOT laying awake at night worrying abou this question, you might want to take a  closer look. In the “old days” (like five years ago), maybe there was a third option. You could play it safe and not try to disrupt anything while maneuvering your way around potential disruptors. You’d just keep getting your job done and succeeding like you always have.

Maybe there are some examples where that still works today, but they are becoming a rare breed. If you’re not disrupting, then you are on the path to be disrupted. I was having a beer the other day with a 25-year-veteran of the tech world, and he said, basically, “Give me a couple of billion dollars and I can set up a bunch of start-ups in just about every industry that will come in and eat the lunch of the incumbents, and not one of them will be able to change in time to do anything about it.”

So how many of us are worried about that? How many of us are working on our internal capacity to respond to disruption, or even our ability to move in and disrupt other parts of our environment? Not enough, I think. Of course, I understand why: our organizations are run like machines, and machines were never designed with disruption in mind.

I think human organizations, on the other hand, are going to figure it out. Take W.L. Gore, for example (the makers of Gore-Tex). They are probably THE case study for management innovation and operating using the principles we identify in Humanize. Here is a great article that talks about all they’ve done, including what I think is a really interesting story about their venture into (and domination of) the guitar string industry.

In short, they did NOTHING in the music industry at first, but one of their engineers realized that if he coated his bike cables with a Gore material it helped keep mud off. For about three years he experimented (cheaply because it wasn’t pre-approved by the powers that be) on applying that idea to guitar strings (that lose tone, apparently, because of the oils and dirt on our fingers). They figured it out, and quickly they were beating their competitors in sales by a margin of 2 to 1.

Gore actually formalized this process for exploring new ideas. After an early “dabble” process, they have a system for evaluating opportunities. As the article states:

There is no predetermined timetable; the focus is on giving product champions time to experiment and learn, and taking small risks rather than betting the ranch too early. It’s a way to organize for innovation, rather than plan for innovation, with a long-term view.

This is decentralized. This is a culture of learning. These are processes that support experimentation and collaboration. This is a human organization, and it seems quite comfortable with disruption. Are you?

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