The Management of Disruptive Change

When writing, I sometimes use the “synonyms” tool in Word to find the right words.  Based on the environment in which we are living these days I used this tool to find synonyms for the word “disruption” and synonyms for the synonyms of disruption (see table below). This exercise illustrated that there is no single constructive or optimistic synonym for the word “disruption” and it caused me to wonder how “disruption” has become an acceptable norm for how we behave, what we strive to do, how we change organizations, countries and governments? 

Synonyms to Disruption        Synonyms of Synonyms

·       Disturbance                        trouble, uproar, commotion, riot, fracas

·       Commotion                         turmoil, upheaval, hullaballoo

·       Trouble                               worry, distress, anxiety, misfortune, woe        

·       Interruption                         break, stoppage, interlude

·       Distraction                          interference, diversion

·       Disorder                              malady, condition, chaos, sickness, ailment

If language is a fundamental part of a culture then there is a need to be smart about the words we choose. The word disruption has become part of our cultural language, and the act of disruption has become an acceptable norm that leads at times to disruption for “disruption’s sake” without clarity about the outcome one is trying to achieve or the effective management of changes that emerge. In an interview with the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review, Clay Christensen, a leader in the theory and practice of disruptive innovation, said, “I never thought … that the word disruption has so many connotations in the English language, that people would then flexibly take an idea, twist it, and use it to justify whatever they wanted to do in the first place”  (in a 2014 discussion "Surrounding His Theory of Disruptive Innovation,” interviewed by Adi Ignatius, June 27, 2014, )

My premise is that disruption, despite the typical use of the word, can be a good thing if serious consideration is given to its consequences - particularly those that influence or challenge cultural norms and practices and have the potential of having a negative influence on people and the connections between them. Treat disruption as a “process and not an event” (Christensen) and one can increase the likelihood of achieving positive outcomes that matter.  Consider a few well known examples of disruption that have had and continue to have some positive impact but have also had real unexpected and negative effects:

  • Facebook was designed to broaden and increase the frequency of communication and the development and/or sustainability of relationships but in our current political environment it has become to tool for reinforcing individual positions and is getting in the way of relationships and the extent to which people engage in the discussion of differences. 
  • Amazon increased the accessibility of goods to people via the internet but this is leading to a dramatic reduction in retail jobs. 
  • The Arab Spring, supported by social media, took on a life of its own and influenced several Middle Eastern countries and the world, but did it help any individual country or people achieve their intended results?
  • Does the disruptive act of calling the news media “fake” really help or is there a better way to manage the problems that have evolved in the media? 

The question is not just whether these outcomes are good or bad but whether enough attention is given to the process, or the management of change.  This is an age-old problem for leaders in organizations and communities; call it disruption, a new organizational “fad”, redesigning an organization, the need to get control of costs, or implementing new systems.  The question is whether or not our leaders are giving enough attention to the process of change and the influence of the change on culture and the people who are sustained and sustain the culture?  If, as it has been proven time and again, culture is more important than strategy, then these are very important questions that cannot be ignored. 

There is no doubt in my mind that a better word might have positively influenced the intent behind a theory of disruption but the real issue is not what we call the type of change but that we respect its intended and unintended consequences and thoughtfully manage its cultural, social and human impact.