Disruption is one of the least well understood aspects of innovation and life in general. We see it as something that comes from the outside, an unwelcome visitor that steps into our lives unannounced to rock our world when things are going just fine. What if I told you that disruption is not about existential factors, but that it comes only from inside of us? Hard to accept, right? Read on.
We are not built to like disruption. We are built to seek out and find patterns. Any certainty is better than uncertainty. But certainty is usually the end point in a very long path that got us to where we are today. Looking back, it's always clear what has succeeded and what hasn't. Our worldview has already changed by that point; we forget the many obstacles that disruption created and how our habits and behaviors changed to accommodate the disruption. When you experience disruption, the overwhelming temptation is to be blind to how it can help you transition into the future. Disruption is also a very personal issue. It challenges us to our very core, because it forces us to adopt a new worldview and a new view of our place in the world.
We are not built to like disruption. We are built to seek out and find patterns. Any certainty is better than uncertainty.
The hardest thing to disrupt is ourselves, our frame of mind, our perspectives and beliefs. I don't mean that in a soft, fuzzy sort of psychobabble way. I mean really disrupt your routine, your habits, your patterns of behavior enough that the discomfort brings you to see the things you see every day in a new light. Because that's when we innovate, when we are taken out of the context of what we know--what we are familiar and accustomed to--to someplace where everything is different. Because human beings are wired to find patterns, we gravitate toward them, we like them. That dulls our senses and it stifles our ability to innovate.
Be careful here, because I'm not saying that disruption is always an indication that you need to leave the past behind. There are many times when disruption is just a wake-up call to pay closer attention to what's really important--to help you focus. A health scare can cause you to change bad patterns of behavior that have undermined your past. A relationship crisis can cause us to pay attention to patterns in how we communicated that sabotaged the relationship. In both cases, disruption is a way to get back on track and put in place the right patterns. Those same human behaviors are at play in our professional lives, so the same principle applies; pay attention to disruption so that you do not become a slave to your past.
The danger is in brushing the disruption aside and continuing business as usual, just hoping that the storm passes. It rarely does; just ask anyone who lived through the fatal disruption of Kodak or Polaroid or Blockbuster or Borders.
The challenge is how to consciously architect disruption so that you are paying attention and are constantly aware of the patterns of behavior in yourself and your organization that undermine success.
Here's the good news. You can change patterns of behavior by disrupting yourself.
I've worked with and coached brilliant people who simply cannot see the negative implications of their behaviors. They are so entrenched in their patterns that they simply accept them, if they can see them at all. Even when they are presented with bulletproof evidence of how what they are doing is working against their best interests, they ignore it and try to rationalize the behavior. I recall working with one founder and CEO of a very successful billion-dollar company who insisted that everyone in his organization should be innovating. Yet when I talked to every single one of his direct reports, and their direct reports, they all told me that the founder was the only one in the company with the license to innovate and they were terrified of stepping on his toes. His response when I told him? Let's just say he didn't need my services anymore. But getting rid of me didn't get rid of the problem.
Here's the good news. You can change patterns of behavior by disrupting yourself. I'll warn you that it is not easy; in fact, it is without exception one of the hardest things you'll ever do. But if you chose to do it, you can.
What I'm going to suggest is pretty radical, but it's also amazingly effective. If you embark on what I'm about to describe, just promise yourself that you'll stick to it. Otherwise, it simply won't work. The minimum effective dose for this prescription is a full 30 days. If you stick with it, I guarantee it will plant the seeds of innovation deeply within you and you will start to see yourself, the people you interact with, and nearly every problem you encounter in an entirely new light.
The 30-Day Plan for Disrupting Yourself
First, I want you to pick 30 inconsequential habits and 30 meaningful behaviors. If you have trouble listing that many, then just ask close friends and family to provide some input. Don't get defensive about it. Just create your lists. For example, an inconsequential habit may be that you brush your teeth or shave with your nondominant hand. The meaningful behavior might be that you listen to your spouse tell you about his or her day for 30 uninterrupted minutes. Another inconsequential habit might be that you won't sit at the head of the conference table when you have a meeting. A meaningful behavior might be that you meditate each morning. Sounds simple, right? Not so fast.
Next, take those two lists and print all the items on small pieces of paper. Put the habits into one Ziplock bag, and the behaviors into another. On each of the next 30 days, pull one item from each bag at random. Those are two new things you will have to do differently on that day. Why do this randomly? Because disruption is about discomfort and uncertainty; it's surviving the stuff that you're not ready for, and then thriving despite it. Every day that passes, I want you to keep doing differently the items you chose on the previous days of this exercise.
"Life starts at the edge of your comfort zone." I want to get you so far out of that zone that you have no choice but to see the world and yourself from an entirely different perspective.
Each day, be sure to keep a record of all the disrupters you've taken on. This is a cumulative exercise, and that's what makes it especially tough. By the end of the 30 days, you will have changed 60 patterns--that's more change than most of us consciously encounter in our entire adult lifetime. But discomfort is the only way to change your perspective. As the popular saying goes, "Life starts at the edge of your comfort zone." I want to get you so far out of that zone that you have no choice but to see the world and yourself from an entirely different perspective.
Week No. 1
During the first week, you'll notice that while you are experiencing the change you will be intensely uncomfortable. "Why am I doing this again? It would be so much easier to just stick with the way I've always done it! Damn you, Koulopoulos. I cut myself again!"
Week No. 2
During the second week into this exercise, you will start to notice that you focus on the disruptive activity obsessively. It will feel as though you are learning a new sport, because it will demand dedicated conscious attention. It will be natural to forget to do things differently and slide back into old behaviors, but don't get frustrated once you catch yourself; just move onto the new habit or behavior. This takes constant reminders; it's nowhere near as easy as it sounds.
The Halfway Point
You will start to notice unexpected shifts in perspective. You will develop an awareness of how stuck you really were in old patterns and how good the change feels. Remember, this is your list, you created it, so it's no surprise that somewhere deep inside your psyche you knew these things needed to change.
Week No. 3
By the third week, you will have not only changed some pretty significant behaviors but you will also start to realize how powerful your ability to alter your habits and behaviors really is, and how you had left such change to chance and circumstance rather than take on the responsibility yourself. People close to you will notice the change as well. You'll appear more positive and more deliberate in your actions. But you'll also develop a sensitivity to the patterns of habit and behavior in others. And you'll be amazed at how stuck they are. Your objective is to keep focusing on yourself, but just the sensitivity to this in others will be enough to help you better understand and work with them.
Week No. 4
By the time you're into the fourth week and ready to end the exercise, you'll have developed an incredible radar with which to see other patterns, habits, and behaviors in yourself that you can change. Some of the new habits and behaviors will stick; they'll work for you, and they'll act as reminders of how much power you have to make conscious choices to disrupt your patterns, and you will be looking for other patterns that you can also disrupt.
Trust me, after this exercise, you will never look at yourself or disruption in the same way again. You will view it as an ally and embrace your awareness of it as an opportunity to get closer to your personal and professional objectives, because you will have accepted that the choice to change, to innovate, to break free of the patterns that hold you back is always yours to make.