Disruption has a general reputation that it does not deserve. It is often held as an irritant, a faux pas, an attack, an undermine, oneupsmanship, and so on.
It has this reputation because people do not do it well enough, nor often enough, nor cleanly enough.
Most disruptions come either from anger, an attempt to change people into something you think they should be, or from a reaction to a crisis that then gets blamed on someone. Those are clearly not the best backgrounds for an effective disruption intended to serve the one being disrupted.
Disruption’s poor reputation is like writing off all art because most people don’t do it well. Mightn’t it be smarter to look to masters of disruption for the opportunity there? Might there not be an art of disruption that can be mastered for the good?
First, let’s establish that disruptions are necessary.
My take on the necessity of disruption is that past habits and actions are not a sufficient grounds for navigating the new challenges of life as one ages, or the times change, innovation happens, or the demands of leadership call for something new. In these situations, disruption of old habits shortens the length of time people suffer and are ineffective. Hence, if well done, timely disruptions provide a service to one’s next developmental step by launching the search for something new. The disruption of the old “hypnosis” — a fixated way of being– makes room for a new freedom, a new innovation, a new source of power to be explored and put into play.
Next, let’s differentiate a well done disruption from one not-so-well done.
A well-done disruption:
- appreciates what has worked in the past that no longer works and puts it to rest
- doesn’t collapse the person with the old activity –after all, they are the person being bet on for what is new and more powerful and effective
- makes the opportunity for something new to be addressed more interesting than the affront of being found to come up short regarding what is called for now
- ruins the old methodology or mode of acting thoroughly — shows the lie in it or the limits of it so that it can no longer be respected and defended as fully as it was
- moves the habitual methodology from common sense to unworkable nonsense relative to what is calling to be fulfilled now
- shows that the old mode won’t scale
A not-so-well done disruption:
- diminishes the person
- sticks them with blame
- calls on them to defend themselves
- isn’t timely in that it doesn’t create the conditions in which the person or people can take on a new direction with support
- is one where anger, personal differences, or a demand for a specific change makes for a power struggle and overshadows the issue at play
I still have burned into my memory the recall of a particularly difficult disruption that could easily look like an attack, a oneupsmanship, an undermine, or a faux pas, yet was none of the above.
I was leading a communication program in which there was a participant so out of touch with conversation and with his own connection with others, that it didn’t take long before the other participants in the program would groan out loud every time I called on him due to his reliably long, rambling, tangential orations. I called on him numerous times. I did this to have the boredom produced by the disconnected rambling and the speaker’s obliviousness to other people’s responses get more and more “crystallized” — more present as an issue (for the people in the program more than for the oblivious one producing it).
Then, I picked my moment for a timely disruption. After selecting the oblivious orator to speak, and once he was underway with his current rambling, and once the other workshop participants began groaning, I interrupted. “Bill (name changed to protect someone long over this issue),” I said, “I have decided to go into a new business. I will start making personalized T-shirts that people can wear to warn others about what they are about to encounter. My first T-shirt will be yours. It will say on the front, ‘I’m autistic’.”
At that point, the workshop participants laughed with relief, because someone had told the truth about what was going on, albeit in an exaggerated way and purposely as a joke. Bill was a bit dumbfounded by the naming of his communication as “autistic”, especially since he had considered himself somewhat of an orator. Bill said, “It isn’t that bad, is it?” Every person in the program nodded yes, that it was that bad. The public response made it harder for Bill to claim the identification of orator. You could almost hear that identification break like the sound of a plate breaking. Bill asked to stop and sit down and think about this.
A short while later (at least short compared to how long this person had been the way that made others groan), Bill raised his hand. I called on him. The workshop participants were a bit apprehensive about another rambling oration as well as a bit curious about what would happen next. How do you follow being called autistic, even in jest?
Bill asked if he could come to the front of the room. I said yes. He walked to the front and sat on a stool facing all of the participants. He took a moment to look at them –to make eye contact, to take in their presence, to connect with them. After a moment or two, he said, “It is true that I haven’t been considering you in what I have been saying. I had thought that only the content of my thoughts was important. I apologize to you. And I promise to take into account those of you I am speaking with in whatever I have to say from now on.”
Bill stopped there. He had said his piece in the shortest time by far in that simple yet powerful communication. And he had said it to us (not off into the air or to some generalized “audience” he had no respect for.) He wanted us to hear him about that. Bill stood up and walked back to his chair with his head up and more dignity than he had had when his head was tilted high as he looked beyond us while “orating”.
The workshop participants after a moment of being stunned at having been addressed so powerfully by the very person they had long ago written off as incapable of it, stood up and gave Bill a standing ovation. It went on and on. They really wanted him to let it in — to know that the “fish had walked up on land” and that they knew it. They wanted to acknowledge the courage it took for him to move from being the publicly outed “disconnected one,” to one having demonstrated that he could start down the path of connection and make it his path.
I owe Bill, as do the other’s in that program, for showing real courage, for taking a disruption and turning it into a new freedom when the old pathway was blocked off or shown to be not viable. We are at our most human and often most inspiring when doing so. Bill reminded us, by demonstration, of what we were all capable of. We are not limited to our stuckness or habits. We are what can correct and explore (and are often quickly forgiven for the past when we do.) We are what can develop. We are more free than we thought.
So was the disruption an attack? a faux pas? a oneupsmanship? a demeaning of another?
Not by a long shot. I had no animosity toward Bill. I felt compassion for him and the suffering of his being disconnected. I felt no need to compete with him about communication ability. I purposely brought up the area where he was stuck rather than pretend it wasn’t there or be the victim of it. My intention was to make the room to have the conversation that many would have liked to have had with him over the years but didn’t, or didn’t in a way that anything good came of it. The difference in approach was that I saw Bill as capable of coming out the other side and being more free to be connected with others, and at the same time as free not to be. Against that background, the disruption was minor — it was what needed to happen for a new pathway to be sought for and opened.
In this case, twenty minutes of discomfort opened a lifetime of exploration of connected communication, and the greater effectiveness and satisfaction that goes with it. It was a small surgery… on a nasty disease… and the potential outcome warranted the disruption.
I’d rather we all took on getting good at disrupting in favor of development in a timely and honest way, than to consider being “nice” to be leaving Bill in his self-absorbed and disconnected relationship with others and with communication. There is nothing “nice” in that.
If leaders can’t disrupt, they can’t lead.
If they can’t disrupt in a timely way that doesn’t demean their people’s capacity to develop and be freer and more powerful, they cannot lead well.
Here’s to disruption. May it be quick, effective, timely and short-lived.