Businessman holding manuscript project presentation with his hand
ATD Blog

Looking for Disruption in the Wrong Places

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The vitality of any organization depends on its ability to respond to disruption with minimum upheaval. Selecting the appropriate strategy makes the process less personal and more practical.

The advent of disruption is much more subtle than change and thus more difficult to discern and detect. If you miss it when it first slips into your world, it will surely reappear. The abrupt onset of disorder and disarray are the first clues that you have been looking in the wrong places.

Disruption provides an opportunity to question and compare current processes to future needs. This is also an opportunity to examine your culture to determine what processes might be misaligned. If something is bent or broken, now is the time to fix it.

Selecting an Appropriate Strategy

Organizations, just like individuals, will redirect effort and energy only when the internal and external systems are ready. The challenge is to get everyone ready at the same time. Keep that thought in mind as you review the strategies detailed below.

Over the Horizon: This evolutionary strategy is also referred to as long-range planning because it implies that things will be different in the future. This long view allows people time to absorb the potential effects of disruption before anything serious happens. Participants have time to consider how the reforms may affect them individually and collectively. Opportunities are provided for people to share their concerns with management. Periodically, the plans are modified, and accommodations are made to ensure buy-in prior to implementation.

On the Edge: This pragmatic strategy is sometimes called transition planning. It has a fixed time frame with specific commencement and completion dates usually measured in shorter increments (with six to nine months being typical). The bottom line is brought into focus as costs and profits are scrutinized. Attention is directed to the rate of return. Marginal products and services are dropped or put on hold. Efficiency experts reduce costs and eliminate waste. Performance expectations and productivity targets are aligned to match revenue forecasts. This strategy often is tied to the quarterly budget cycle, and it usually engages the entire organization.

Bet the Future: This reactive strategy is referred to as downsizing, reorganizing, or restructuring. The purpose is immediate transformation—here today, gone tomorrow. Actions include drastic cutbacks, massive layoffs, and multiple branch closures. Whole industries are relocated—sometimes to other countries—in pursuit of lower costs. Usually kept under close wraps until the last minute, this strategy catches people by surprise and sends shock waves throughout the organization. When used to preserve what is still viable, the benefits can be immediate if the disruption is staged as a reformation.


How People React to Disruption

People react in three ways:

1. Proactive people are progressive in their approach. They tend to value innovation and respond positively to suggestions for improvement. They seek difficult challenges, collective concerns, and personal criticisms. Their most notable characteristics are that they anticipate disruption, take initiative, solve problems, and seek growth opportunities.

2. Reactive people are negative about most things and tend to openly resist anything new. Their survival instinct is strong, and they are quick to feel threatened by disruption. These individuals avoid responsibility and, when things go wrong, they shift the blame to others. Their most notable characteristics are objections, obstruction, gossip, and covert sabotage.

3. Inactive people are neutral in their response to disruption. They maintain a “take it or leave it” attitude and avoid upsetting the status quo by dodging difficult issues. They accept reforms only when they see proof that it is working. Their most notable characteristics are fence-sitting, reluctant approval, qualified support, and conditional agreements.


Watch closely the next time a disruption occurs, and you will notice most people become inactive while watching the struggle between the proactive and resistive forces. They sit on the fence until they see evidence that disruption is actually taking shape and management plans to act.

That is why it is so important for leaders not to give up at the first sign of resistance. If you believe that the disruption is really underway, then you must hang in there long enough for the fence-sitters to see your resolve and feel motivated to join in supporting the next steps.

Keeping Participants Focused

Leaders and followers put forth their best efforts when both are ready to act as a unified force. It’s gratifying to watch people shift their attitudes toward disruption when they realize that it is not just about them but about their organization undergoing a critical transformation.

You will know disruption is having a positive impact when those around you are discussing the benefits of doing the right things the right way for the right reasons. It is at this point that the disruption takes on a life of its own and begins to unfold naturally.

About the Author

Tom Jones has studied organizations and the people they employ long enough to have a keen sense of what it takes for both to prosper. He writes and speaks about those leadership challenges and management perplexities that ultimately determine the success or failure of today’s customer-sensitive workplace.

In his new book, Doers: The Vital Few Who Get Things Done, Tom shows employers how to create a workplace where doers flourish. He also shows doers how to seek out an organization where their eagerness to succeed is recognized and rewarded.

Tom holds a doctoral degree in organization and leadership from the University of San Francisco. He has lectured at six universities and currently teaches Principles of Management for the College of Business at California State University, Monterey Bay.

Sign In to Post a Comment
This is such interesting timing. From the articles title to content it is hard not to compare it to the disruption at the U.S. Capitol Building yesterday.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.