Business disruption is high on the list of hot topics being discussed in boardrooms around the world. After seeing the effect that innovations made possible by the internet have had on certain industries (from music to movies, travel to takeaway food), many companies are looking at how to disrupt themselves before the dirty deed is done to them. In this recent Fortune article, How the Best Business Leaders Disrupt Themselves, we read how Netflix CEO “Reed Hastings knew that online streaming would disrupt his successful DVDs-by-mail model. He committed to streaming in 2011—and Netflix’s stock plunged 76%. Wall Street called for his head. But Hastings pushed on, and today DVDs are just 7% of the company’s business, while the stock is up 150% from its pre-plunge peak”.
For those business leaders looking to disrupt themselves, the big consultancies are there to hold your hand (and take your money). Just last year Accenture published a Guide to Self-Disruption with a focus on “Driving Growth through Enterprise Innovation in the Digital Age”. It includes some compelling arguments for disruption such as a recent Accenture survey which showed that 93% of enterprise-level executives said they think innovation is critical to their business, but only 34% said they believe they have a well-defined innovation strategy in place.
One of the “digital” agencies that I most admire is R/GA. They have baked disruption into their DNA from the beginning. In a recent speech in London at a Guardian event, founder Bob Greenberg had this to say: “We’ve never been disrupted – we’re really thankful for that – so we create our own disruption every nine years”. He went on to say that he thinks the next version of R/GA, which is due around 2021, will be the ‘Agency for the Intelligent Age’. That means mixed reality, artificial intelligence and robotics.
So with all this disruption going on, why do so few people apply this to their own lives or careers?
The truth is, we set ourselves on a career path that can be very linear, determined to make it up the ladder but rarely questioning if that ladder is really right for us. Working in the advertising business for so long, I often wonder why in such a creative industry people tend to put themselves in the very box they encourage their clients to think out of. You’re an art director, you’re a planner – and so on. Stick to your chosen patch and wear the right shirt. But what if we could disrupt ourselves a little more? Maybe we would discover a whole new talent. In this 2012 article in Harvard Business Review, Whitney Johnson gives some examples of people that took a left turn and found exciting new opportunities. She writes about “Martin Crampton, a former research scientist and math teacher from Australia. He parlayed a stint as a developer and demo specialist for a software company in Melbourne into a decade-long marketing career, first at the software firm and then at two multinational manufacturing companies (Bic and Stihl), before starting his own consultancy. In 1993 he leapt into another profession and, with his partner, created Australia’s first national real estate portal (before Realtor.com)”. Being open to disruption can have a hugely positive impact on your life. It might not lead to dotcom fortunes but it always opens up new doors. More than anything, it stretches you, challenges your own set ideas and you always end up meeting some inspiring people along the way.
I’ve been disrupting myself since I was 20 years old and decided to overcome being an introvert and bought the loudest shirt I could find. Disruption seemed to be instinctual. Yes, it has been very hard at times and hasn’t always led to success. From mounting an exhibition of modern art in a Paris gallery (and not selling one item) to producing an electronic music soundtrack for a Chinese photographer’s slideshow at UNESCO, to moving into digital marketing in 1996 when it was still in its infancy or shifting continents more often than most people change hairstyles, it has been and incredible journey which hasn’t always been comfortable. You’d think by now I’d want to settle down. If anything, I’m being more disruptive to myself now then ever before. A year ago I decided to do something I’ve never done and write a book. It’s already published and helping me shift my career into a whole new area – including making the decision never have a permanent job again. Disruption became a way of life for me and I realise that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But I do believe that we can all benefit from a little auto-disruption in our lives. They say “change is good”, but I’d go one step further. Change that you actively choose can be a truly liberating experience.