Is disruption really the change you’ve been looking for?

by | Oct 17, 2019

  • Disruptive change practice is not a new concept.
  • There needs to be a clear idea of what disruptive means.
  • Not ideal to just use disruption for disruption’s sake.

There’s been an undercurrent of disquiet about the change leadership in my circles of late.  It’s born of a niggling unease that we are not seeing anything change in how leaders are leading change and a belief that that change, or rather disruption, is healthy and stagnant is not.

I’ve been chewing on it a little more and wondering if my focus is on the wrong element. Yes, change leadership practice can improve, and yes, organisations do need to build change maturity and change capability in order to remain relevant in our hyper-connected environment. But I concede, that disruptive change might be over-doing it. I’m wondering if we are asking too much.

Do we need disruption at all in our organisations?

What should be disrupted?

If I think about what disruptive change looks like in today’s workplace I can think of what might be drivers of step change, but few disruptive trends in actual practice.

Those drivers that are evident to me are:

  • the increasing digitisation of organisations business (the move to online commerce and provision of products and services)
  • the increasing diversity in generational employees
  • the erosion of organisational boundaries (employees as customers, and customers as employees)

The response to these three drivers seems to be moving towards an enterprise social business agenda and more collaborative and co-creationist ways of working. There’s some seriously interesting stuff being posed in the space of social business, social architecture and social enterprise networks. But while the C-suite has readily adopted the need for business to be digital, there has been a less enthusiastic reception to business being social.

I would argue that leadership are just not ready to cede control – because make no mistake, to embrace social architecture and a social business strategy is to relinquish control and embrace the potential of the unknown. When you move your business to social as the structure, you do not have control over the ideas, the thoughts, the feedback, and the communication within your organisation. Well not in the traditional way.

Any devotee of complexity and chaos theory  will tell you that rarely do you see total chaos. Within any chaotic system, there are patterns and predictability. By thinking of system attractors and self-organising properties., control just looks a little different.

But what does change leadership look like in an organisation that is embracing a social strategy.

  • We create more space for dialogue and less need for governance packs and reports.
  • We use a smaller subset of key messages to act as system attractors, and worry less about losing control of the message
  • We take a systems approach, rather than a project plan and process view.
  • There’s probably a lot of mind-maps representing the network impact.
  • Enterprise systems enable the collection of vast amounts of data and the generation of insights for change adoption
  • We see rumour as feedback and engage with it.
  • We stay alert to emerging opportunities for design, implementation and communication
  • We’re mindful that small actions could create large repercussions or a springboard for big results
  • We get comfortable with our communities of change agents translating the message in the way they want
  • As change leaders our primary purpose is to connect people

So despite the concepts of chaos and systems theory being several decades old, it might be, well, … disruptive change practice… is it too much to ask from today’s leadership? Curious to know your thoughts. 

Related reading:

Gail Severini and I work through the evolution of change management practice in three posts starting here: What are the real costs of “muscling through” change?

Gail also provides a terrific summary of the academic stoush on the theory of Disruptive Innovation in: When Harvard professors duke it out – the ugly debate on Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation

Joe Gergen provides a good summary of complexity and chaos theory and the link to innovation in “innovation through chaos really”.

Luc Galoppin provides a great e-book on social architecture

Simon Terry provides a cautionary letter to the CEO on the desire for an Enterprise Social Network 



  1. Martin Fenwick

    Great article again Jen. So much fadism and bandwagon activity in leadership leads to just what you are talking about. The change any organisation needs is the change that will work for it, not just a fad for the sake of it. Remembering that when it comes down to it change is people, and what’s the best way to get the most from people is a good place to start.

  2. Ben Ramsden

    In my experience the greatest disruption occurs in organisations with the least flexible structures. Forces build until sudden transformation is inevitable – like an earthquake. Inflexibility is a legacy trait, often born from a history of being protected. Would it be better to let such organisations fail?

  3. Dr Jen Frahm

    OOOH you ask the tough questions Ben! I think you are right, if we think about resilience in engineering terms buildings are built with sufficient flexibility to withstand earthquakes. So disruption hurts those with the least flexibility. But I’d like to think we can help them with that rather than have them crumble…unless we are leaning towards creative destruction!

  4. Dr Jen Frahm

    Thanks Martin – yes, if only we could all focus on getting the best out of people – what change we would see!

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