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On bringing about real change (or using disruption management to create innovation)

"You can’t bring about innovation with disruption," a friend of mine likes to say. Luckily, I’ve also gleamed some valuable insights on exactly how to go about changing what I myself like to call dysfunctional organisations from her, or how to disrupt them enough to bring about real innovation.

But first a bit of background for why I’m blogging this post now: Some time ago I was invited to manage the Twitter-account of Corporate Rebels in week 12 this year, in other words the week now coming to an end. Corporate who? You can read more about the concept here, or the short version here.

Their starting point:

"Our organizations no longer serve our needs. They cannot keep pace with a high-velocity, hyper-connected world. They no longer can do what we need them to do. Change is required."

I couldn’t agree more, but how do you bring about the needed change?

 As someone who’s spent most of her professional life working for legacy media, I know that change doesn’t come easy – a fact I’ve blogged about at numerous times, most recently (and with a positive slant) in this post on how to transition from legacy media culture to the digital world.

Now it must be said I had no idea how insanely short on time and focus outside of work I’d be this week (and how much in need of the vacation I started yesterday) when I accepted the challenge to manage @CorporateRebels in week 12. But, now  that my much needed vacation has finally arrived, it offers me the opportunity (and much needed impetus) to sit down and write that post I’ve long been contemplating on disruption management.

As so many good things in life, it started with a great conversation: This particular conversation took place in London in 2010, while visiting my friend Adriana Lukas (who, as it happens, was the woman who set up this very blog for me and told me to get blogging back in 2005). Adriana is, in Jackie Danicki’s words, "a professional disruptor" and the topic for our conversation that evening, was Adriana’s recent thoughts on what she coined ”disruption management”.

In Adriana’s words (via this blog post by Jackie): "Disruption is not about destruction. It’s about putting things off-balance in order to change them, so you can sneak something new and better in between the cracks."

Here’s how (again, in Adriana’s words, as she explains this much better herself than I do):

The challenge for anyone looking to change the old ways is to:

  • avoid existing and mostly dysfunctional processes
  • connect to the outside where the shifts are being defined
  • bring the change inside and apply it to their sphere of influence
  • find people to set up a loose and cross-functional network of allies who end up building alternative ways

The first three apply to those who have had their OFM. The forth is the hardest and involves co-operation, conversations, reaching out and most of all willingness to face the stigma of a disruptor. There rarely is innovation without disruption…

 This, in short, is the recipe for disruption management if I’ve understood Adriana correctly. She also has this very useful (and funny) post on what kind of persons within any organisation who might be persuaded to become your allies in bringing about change.

After having that late night conversation with Adriana about disruption management back in January 2010, it felt like I had found an important, missing link that tied so much of what I had been thinking about the previous few years together.

See, I’ve always felt that companies, and especially media companies, are very much like more or less dysfunctional families (please note, I say this with almost as much love as I have for my own weird and wonderful family), and I’ve sometimes observed how dysfunctional managers create co-dependent employees. In general,  I’d long been contemplating how there's so much that is true about individual psychology that's also true about companies: "As above, so below"  - macro cosmos mirrors micro cosmos.

And journalism has at times felt like one of the most dysfunctional industries ever, dysfunction being the norm and not the exception - something that's even eulogised at times. As a journalist, hearing eulogies like this about other media folks is not uncommon: "He was a right old crook and bastard, mercurial and just plain impossible at times, a heavy drinker whose wife long since left him: But he was a hell of a journalist to the end of his times". Crook, bastard and heavy drinker often being honorary words when used by journalists and editors about journalists and editors.

This is a type of mythology I’ve always detested, and why I’ve repeatedly talked about how journalism needs new heroes, new myths: And as I’m passionate about the opportunities online media holds for transforming and expanding journalism, I’ve often talked about the way new online tools and services can help bring about more open, more transparent, more social, more informed, more service-oriented journalism - and sought to point to "heroes" and positive "myths" from that field.

It’s easy to point out how tools such as Twitter of Google Maps have created new opportunities for lazy journalism and celebrity stalking, but there’s also tons of examples on how such tools have created a more transparent, more informed journalism that wasn’t quite possible in the same way before.

So when you bring the change new tools represents into media organisations, it changes journalism as well. Also, if you can identify, educated and network the people who have the passion, and the skills or willingness to learn them, for bringing about change, that can also help bring about new solutions, new alliances – and affect change. Which all, might help bring about small, loosely organised, doses of disruption management, though perhaps not enough? Perhaps, the change is only incremental as the old school still is in charge?  (Kevin has posted some reflections related to this here)

Again, I do know how hard it can be, or seem, to bring about substantial change in the industry I’m most familiar with as we’re always chasing deadlines, always fighting the daily chaos (which I written about here, here, here and here – to mention a few posts). So these tips come in handy:

A few tips for those who find themselves in a situation where the organisation is their worst enemy:

  1. Don’t try to change the system from within – i.e. trying to bring a change by going through established and outdated processes.
  2. Find people inside the organisation who understand both how important and good such change is and the original reason behind processes that are stopping it.
  3. Increase their knowledge and understanding of what you are trying to bring about, share tools, passion, ideas, frustrations.
  4. Gradually connect these people in a network that will amplify their ability to make things happen ‘under the radar’, i.e. bypassing the dysfunctional processes and in effect creating alternative ways of doing things.
  5. Make sure the ‘alternative ways’ are not grabbed by the system’s people and turned into their version of inflexible and ossified processes.
  6. Rinse, lather and repeat – 2 or 3 times helps but once already feels good.
  7. Wave good bye to ‘business cases’ and say hello to ‘case studies’ i.e. ‘this is how we have done it and all we want is to enable everyone else to do something similar if they wish’.

This, to my mind, is brilliant advice, and applies not only to companies but to all kinds of organisations. This, I think, is also why all kinds of networks of change makers, change hungry or change curious people, such as Norwegian Online News Association and Girl Geek Dinners, can be so powerful when it comes to connecting the right people with each other and with powerful ideas…


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