What Do We Do About Disruption Now That It’s the Norm?

Whatever your current comfort level concerning disruptive technologies, one thing is certain: you’re about to get less comfortable. Accepting that the discomfort is here for the foreseeable future will help you and your team cultivate the organizational competencies you’ll need to thrive under whatever conditions the age of disruption continues to throw your way.

When business analysts first started tossing around the term “disruption,” boy bands, overalls, and Doc Marten boots were all the rage. It was way back in 1995 when Clayton Christensen and Joseph Bower first discussed “disruptive technologies” in a landmark HBR article.[1]

When Disruption first exploded into the business landscape, we thought it would be like a volcanic eruption or a tsunami—a world-shaking change so powerful it had to be a phase. Nothing cataclysmic lasts forever, right?

Turns out we were wrong. The disruptive technologies of the 1990s eventually morphed into the mainstream technologies of the 2000s, but then new disruptors emerged to take their place. The era of disruption has lasted longer than the Great Depression or the Vietnam War, and it shows no signs of waning.

So how does a business cope with the perpetual turbulence of ongoing disruption?  How can you gain a sense of control in the face of chronic instability and constant change, not just in technology but also in markets, economic trends, and social structures?

An immature business will either try to ignore the disturbance or descend into panic mode. A mature business, on the other hand, embraces digital transformation as the only sane, sustainable response to disruption.

The value of internal disruption

Digital transformation is the process of optimizing every aspect of your business through the use of digital solutions. Starting down the path of digital transformation is a disruptive act, but revamping your internal processes can help protect your business from the outer chaos in the marketplace.

Rather than fighting for stability, embrace a state of permanent flux. Accept that business-as-normal won’t likely be “normal” for some time, perhaps not in our lifetime, and commit to operating at the cutting-edge of change.

That doesn’t mean taking needless risks. But it does mean investing in continual modernization, across the entire business. We’re talking end to end, from the start of your value chain to the final customer interaction.

Instead of waiting around for the ultimate software to solve your biggest problems, once and for all, invest in strategic, targeted solutions to tackle your most critical problems, one at a time. Sure the perfect ERP (enterprise resource planning) system for your industry may not be forthcoming for a couple of years, but what can you do today about the fact that your accounting clerks are still giving out paper purchase orders?

Create a digital roadmap to take your business from your current state to a fully digital future—and be prepared to travel down that road even if you can’t see exactly where it will end. Better to be on the road, headed in the right direction, than to find yourself stranded alongside it because you missed out on a key technology that took the rest of your industry by storm.

Focus on achieving digital maturity

Boston College professor Gerald Kane defines digital transformation as “adopting business processes and practices to help the organization compete effectively in an increasingly digital world.”[2] That’s a surprisingly nontechnical definition, on purpose, it seems.

As Kane explains, technology doesn’t drive digital transformation. It’s “only part of the story.” The other parts include broader business concerns: strategy, leadership, management, and so on.

For this reason, Kane prefers the term “digital maturity” to express the state of a business equipped to handle whatever disruptions digitalization throws at it. Digital maturity occurs as an organization grows up digitally, as it adapts responsively to changes in the environment.

Adaptability forms the essence of personal maturity, and in the face of persistent disruption, it’s the only really adult response an organization can make. Children either hide or throw a tantrum when something’s happening in their environment and they can’t change it, but grown-ups adjust.

How prepared is your organization to respond to the ever-shifting demands of the digital business environment? You can assess your digital maturity by looking both outwards and inwards:

  • Look outwards to trends in your industry. Are you barely keeping up with them or staying ahead of the curve?
  • Keep an eye on your direct competitors. What digital solutions do you notice them using?
  • Trace the journey your customers take through your marketing, sales, and after-sales processes. How could you improve it by incorporating digital solutions?
  • Listen to your customers. What are they complaining about? Asking for? What are their digital expectations?
  • Scrutinize your internal workflows, across every part of the company. Where are there inefficiencies or bottlenecks that technology might be able to resolve?
  • Examine your corporate culture. How open are you to change? How willing are you to invest team in learning new ways of doing things?

Once you’ve gauged your current level of digital maturity, you can set yourself targets for growth. Create key performance indicators in specific areas of the business and track your progress toward them. For example, you might set a goal of reducing the number of calls to the IT Help Desk by 20% and introduce an intelligent chat bot to help you achieve that milestone.

Ride the wave of innovative (not just incremental) change

Nobody coasts or glides their way through the recurring waves of disruption. Surviving in the midst of continuous disorder requires at least basic surfing skills. And those who develop advanced surfing skills can actually ride the crest of disruptive change to new levels of success.

Businesses that get serious about digital maturity develop the ability to turn digital disruption to their own advantage. Rather than making the minimal adjustments necessary for survival, they conquer the giant waves of change by pursuing innovation.

Although the concept of “disruptive innovation” has been with us for almost as long as the phrase “disruptive technologies,” there are still plenty of ways to push the boundaries of possibility. Small and medium-sized businesses often enjoy an edge over bigger players in this regard. When you’re small and nimble, you can pivot easily. You can also try limited digital experiments without risking the fate of an entire division.

Historically, disruptive innovation has happened not through huge corporate investments but through the efforts of a small player that suddenly found a way to tap into a hidden or emerging market, serving customers there in a novel way. Think Netflix (Net Who?) surging to prominence while industry giant Blockbuster endured its sluggish decline.

Whatever your current comfort level concerning disruptive technologies, one thing is certain: you’re about to get less comfortable. Accepting that the discomfort is here for the foreseeable future will help you and your team cultivate the organizational competencies you’ll need to thrive under whatever conditions the age of disruption continues to throw your way.

[1] Bower, J.L., & Christensen, C.M. (1995). Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/1995/01/disruptive-technologies-catching-the-wave

[2] Kane, G. (2017, April 4). Digital Maturity, Not Digital Transformation. MIT Sloan Management Review. https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/digital-maturity-not-digital-transformation/?use_credit=ddb15d13f8dbd975d89c8ba51cfca72c

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