Responding to disruption

      In my blog post last week, I discussed leadership for moments of disruption. This week, I would like to discuss the concept of disruption a little further.

           Disruption is a term most prominently coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen (1995). Christensen suggests that the industrial process is rift with disruptions in which entire industries must change of risk failure. Christensen’s most prominent example is that of the radical changes in the steel industry which drastically changed the production process for steel.

            Of course, disruption is not limited just to certain industries or even to for-profit industry. It can take place in a significant way at a societal level as well. Disruptions are important to the study of community and institutional life because they have such a major impact on how things are done.

            First, it is important to recognize the enormity of large-scale disruption. Much of the time, many people will either be hurt and/or have to make drastic changes in order to continue to compete. This can create major hardship on individuals, somewhat in economic terms, but also in psychological, spiritual, and physical ways as well.

            Secondly, it is important to recognize that there are important reasons for disruption. Sometimes, a new technology or problem will manifest in a way that would cause hardship should there not be disruption. Some might even suggest that we need to respond to certain events with disruption. Proponents of global warming, for example, suggest that humans need to radically change the way they utilize fossil fuels, for example. In U.S. based higher education, policy makers and others are suggesting that radical changes need to be made in order to make degrees more useful and to drive down costs. The increased integration in the United States caused by various civil rights movements could be categorized as a positive disruption.

            The big question around disruption is how we respond to it. The main way we can positively deal with disruption is to try to provide hope and opportunity. As I said, we do have to recognize that disruption is a really tough process and, thus, we do have to recognize that there is a human cost. We should not be naïve to that.

            Nor do I want to suggest that we completely ignore the past as if it had no value. There can be great value in past traditions, the hard work done in the past, and we can learn a great deal from it. We do not have a start to innovation without what has come before.

            However, it is also important that we know how to temperate living in the past. We need to recognize that there are some things that are just not coming back and a need to a) be responsive to the current times and b) consider the future. We might be able to take from the past, but if we just insist on living in the past, we will not find ourselves living in reality. Since we cannot go back in time, individuals cannot have hope unless they have something positive to live for.

            How can we do this? First, we have to critically view the decisions of the past. That is not to say that everything is wrong, but we do need to decide which things are worth keeping and which things are not. This is a critical ethical issue, certainly done on a societal level, but I would suggest an individual one as well.

            Secondly, we have to learn to adjust. Flexibility is needed to pro-actively deal with issues that may arrive. This pragmatic and pro-active approach deals with problems as they come up instead of clinging to clearly failing propositions. When we adjust, we can find ourselves in a better position. Yes, there may be things that are not as we would have liked or our dreams may have to change, but it is important that we find places in which to semi-quote Gandhi where our talents, desires, and the world’s needs meet.

            Third, we must make sure that we are always hopeful. If there is a problem with hope, perhaps we are doing things wrong. While economic means are certainly important, sometimes one has to look for inspiration and hope outside of the economic spectrum. Perhaps we might find hope in our relationships with others, through an enjoyable activity, or through spiritual means.

            To be sure, disruption is not a pleasant thing. These disruptions do sometimes have positive effects, however. To focus on getting the best out of a disruptive process, we need to focus on what we can do to make our relationships and experiences hopeful and optimistic. This takes real effort and diligence, but keeping one’s priorities and focusing on a path that allows for growth (whatever that means) seems to be a sign of hope emerging from disruption.

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