Smart Disruption: Sustain and Disrupt Your Work the Right Way

smart disruption

“Disruption is not just about technology changing; it is about changing the logic of a business.” — Stanford Professor William Barnett

The Modern Work Dilemma

Modern work innovation comes in two forms: sustaining and disruptive. With both of these forms, we experience the tension of the success of “now” contrasted with the need for future relevance.

Some people mistakenly believe these two forms of innovation mark the difference between an established large corporation and a startup. But in reality, success depends on a healthy balance between these two ideas combined with our awareness, agility, and resilience to master the ever-changing business landscape.

How can you find the perfect balance when structuring your company’s organizational transformation?

It starts with defining our terms.

To put it simply, to sustain means to rigidly live by declarations such as, “this is our process,” resisting change at all costs. For a company, the present moment of sustain is built on historical trends within the business. They learn, create systems, processes, and then “do” and repeat. They can get so attached to the way things are done, it becomes second nature. Which is great … until it isn’t. Think Blockbuster and Kodak. The downside of “sustain” is that it relates to expecting the future to conform to historical trends. If only it were that easy.

Disruption, by contrast, is inherently uncomfortable. It’s seemingly taking a step back in order to take a larger leap forward when it is felt that a company’s future depends on it. It’s shaking up the way things are done, which can be especially daunting for those leading the charge to innovate. The thing about disruption is that there are ripple effects impacting things that were not visible on the surface before you started. For instance, disruption can be challenging because it isn’t linear. People may tell you things like, “This disruptive solution is magical! It’s like a flying carpet — just follow our plan and you’ll find your happy place.”

If only disruption could be so straightforward and methodical.

Disruption Is Complicated

Not only is the disruptive path not very direct, but you must also accept that you will be dealing with multi-layered complexity. This is especially true in the enterprise space where there can be many businesses within a business, operating independently under a large corporate umbrella. “Silo” doesn’t even begin to cover it. By contrast, it’s much like peeling an onion, where more and more layers are gradually revealed.

Disruption often starts with C-suite executives charting the course for each business with high-level visibility. Then, there are senior managers. This group is fascinating because it is one that sometimes resists disruption due to inertia in the organization and a status-quo mentality. Middle-tier managers in bureaucratic or machine-structure organizations may also prefer to continue with the status quo because of the tangible and intangible benefits.

Last but not least, there are individual contributors – those readers familiar with MacLeod’s corporate philosophies will know that these contributors can also be called the “corporate clueless.” In most cases they are not made aware of the bigger picture because management deems that the best way to keep them focused and performing at the highest levels possible.

Ironically, it is from this group that the organization stands to benefit the most from disruption — because no matter how much technology changes the landscape, it is the “corporate clueless” creativity that the organization needs more than anything else. But to management, changing the way individual contributors work in order to free up time for increased creativity often feels like the end of corporate life as they know it.

Think about it like this: Organizations are constantly evolving and changing to stay ahead. The employees working to build a business are often key stakeholders in building the systems and processes that have created long-term success.

Then when change finally happens, it feels like everything they’ve worked for is invalid — thrown out the window. To survive, employees must understand how to change and embrace the journey, despite the natural feeling that their work life is going to be drastically and unpleasantly changed forever.

Smart Disruption: Sustain and Disrupt the Right Way

Smart disruption means disrupting and sustaining people, processes, and technology as they innovate to create value now, and relevance in the future. Creating a corporate culture of agility, awareness, and resilience is the new way to win. Traditional change management is dead. Modern organizations embrace constant change. But considering there is a 70% fail rate on digital transformation projects, it is critical to know how to do smart disruption right.

For leaders of disruption, transformation can feel refreshing, controlled, and necessary. However, for teams, groups, and individuals in the path or wake of the disruptive transformation, change can feel unpleasant, disturbing, messy, and hard to understand.  With this in mind, there are four critical factors to consider when planning an approach to smart disruption:

Disruptive transformation leadership needs to know how to quantify the change for those it will affect. When faced with disruption, those affected will ask themselves questions about their own daily operations such as:

Overcoming Resistance: A Smart Disruptor’s Heroic Journey

A typical journey for those trying to understand and absorb smart disruption goes something like this. There are three phases:

  1. The Separation
  2. Supreme Ordeal
  3. Unification

Phase 1: The Separation

The Separation involves first being issued a change, followed by a natural inclination to resist the change. Next, a “box is built” where allies are gathered, and an ego-centric view is taken and self-justified. This evolves into an “I’ll tentatively give it a chance” mindset, followed by passive resistance: “Let’s watch this fail.” The Separation stage culminates in a pit of despair, where there is a desire to withdraw, feel stretched, and focus on the worst-case scenario.

Phase 2: Supreme Ordeal

The Supreme Ordeal is the path of no return. It follows on from The Separation, and starts with a “My way was better” attitude. But then there is a glimmer-of-hope stage, followed by a wayfinding attitude and breakaway from nay-sayers. The Supreme Ordeal culminates in people learning new processes and skills.

Phase 3: Unification

You’ve done it! Here, there is an open commitment to change. People become change champions, and gain resilience through acquiring new skills and strengths.

The Culture of Understanding Smart Disruption

The culture of significant change can also be divided into three aspects:

  1. How We Change: This relates to identifying and/or demonstrating successful examples, stakeholder assessment, success factors, the design process, and resistance management.
  2. Change Targets: Identify what teams will benefit the most and resist the least.
  3. Leadership Assessment: How are successful change efforts led and sponsored?

To achieve complete alignment within the company, management needs to determine who they need to serve, and then align to the common interests of those impacted. It is necessary to “connect the dots” to existing initiatives and priorities — organizational, executive, leadership, group, and team. Transformation alignment also needs to be achieved with existing KPIs, metrics, and goals.

Smart disruption is easiest to achieve when a company plans with simplicity, stakeholder management and the creation of an overall roadmap. Planning should involve an organized, predetermined approach to measurement: How will we measure success in a way that aligns with our organizational success measures? Next, define how your “Why?” and success vision can be quantified and measured, and consult key stakeholders to align around value and success metrics. Part of planning with simplicity is making sure management takes time to understand and drive organizational awareness.

Here is what management can expect to plan for:

Who’s involved with smart disruption?

What’s involved with smart disruption?

How Can You Organize Your Stakeholders?

When undertaking smart disruptive transformation, here is a proven way to structure your core team:

And typically, key success factors can look like this:

Early and consistent communication is likely going to be your foremost key success factor. This will be management’s connection to core and leadership groups, and will drive your organizational cultural understanding. Communication involves the establishment of feedback loops, and ensures everyone can understand and absorb the agreed-upon success measures. Developing a center of excellence is a way to make sure your key success factors are ultimately met.

Once your key success factors are identified, your transformation adoption strategy is the next aspect to be structured:

Adoption Strategy: Who’s Involved?

You will also need to select the best external partners and systems to support your disruptive transformation. Workfront is a widely trusted, proven system of record that has provided a reliable work management platform to countless companies.

It’s Time to Set Out On Your Transformative Path

Stanford Professor William Barnett described disruption this way: “Disruption is not just about technology changing; it is about changing the logic of a business.” Smart disruption agility is not linear and awareness is not simple, but its resilience feels personal.

Are you ready to take the steps your company needs you to take? Here are the key questions to ask yourself to identify your risks and ensure you set everything up for success.

Early involvement, a big-picture focus, strategic partnerships, vision and value oversight, and Marketing Work Management enablement are the ingredients for smart disruption. As Professor Barnett states — with logical planning and the right people and systems in place, smart disruption with the goal of successful organizational transformation is absolutely achievable.

[Read the Harvard Business Review Report, Sponsored by Workfront: “The Future of Work: A Nexus of Strategy and Execution”]