How To Disrupt Myopia In An Organization
Originally published in PSFK.
Allow events to change you. You have to be willing to grow. Growth is different from something that happens to you. You produce it. You live it. The prerequisites for growth: the openness to experience events and the willingness to be changed by them. — Bruce Mau, “An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth”
In “An Incumbent’s Guide to Digital Disruption,” Chris Bradley and Clayton O’Toole describe four stages of disruption from the perspective of an established organization: at first, the disruptive force is merely a bit of signal amidst a lot of noise, only detectable to folks paying attention.
Then, out of the noise, a clear model is validated. Once validated, it becomes an inevitability that a critical mass of adoption will become achieved. Finally, when this new business model is widely adopted, it becomes the new normal—until, of course, the next disrupter comes along. The fact that between 2002 and 2012, 70% of the Global Fortune 500 companies turned over (Forrester) suggests that the ability to learn and evolve is challenging, despite being imperative.
In order to remain competitive, incumbents must adapt and change and, to do so, overcome range of barriers inherent to evolution. Pain avoidance, overcoming inertia of the extant model, and re-framing a brand to fit within a new context all present challenges, but perhaps the most challenging step in evolution is the first one: overcoming one’s myopic point-of-view in order to have the acuity of foresight to begin the process of change.
Once you know you must evolve, the barriers to overcome can still be incredibly challenging. But they are also practical and operational in nature, and, as such, have specific solutions.
Myopia, on the other hand, cannot be solved with an improved customer experience, technology infrastructure, or marketing message; it’s the very hardest challenge to overcome because it stems from an organization’s ethos, rather than a practical concern. Open-mindedness and willingness to change can’t be bought; it must be an inherent part of an organization’s culture and outlook.
To be comfortable with change is not a natural inclination; it takes constant attention and effort. When confronted with the threat of change, it’s far too easy to stick to our beliefs of how the world works—or how we think it should work—despite the evidence that things are evolving. When something threatens to disrupt our frame of reference, it’s tempting to double down on one’s beliefs, and construct a bulwark to defend our familiar world against the future. Though a natural reaction, it is, in fact, simply ignoring reality.
Why is it so frightening to accept that the only reliable constant is change? The evidence is all around us: children grow up faster than we can comprehend; our own bodies continuously morph from infancy to our death; culture, fashion, art, and architecture are always changing, propelled by ever-advancing technology; and on a grander scale, in the natural world, species continuously evolve in the face of an ever-changing environment and new pathogens and predators.
Yet, despite the inexorable changing nature of our lives and our world, people often find the disruptions stemming from this change a frightening, even impossible, phenomena to confront. Perhaps because, deep down, we know the forces that change end one way: with us no longer existing. The logical outcome of change is our own obsolescence.
To confront this means choosing between two fundamental paths in life: optimistically embrace change and evolution and progress, or cling fearfully to the past, steeling yourself against the inexorable pull of the future.
While it sounds like an easy choice, it’s far from simple. Why didn’t Blockbuster avoid Netflix? Why didn’t Nokia launch a successful touchscreen phone before Apple launched the iPhone? Why didn’t record companies begin selling MP3s before Napster made piracy easy? Why didn’t Kodak invest in digital imaging sooner?
It’s not necessarily because people in those disrupted companies were untalented or inept; it’s that they were making decisions based on their current frame of reference. A key cause of myopia is that one’s frame of reference—what we believe to be true about the world—usually changes in reaction to outside forces, instead of proactively causing change itself; we often live in a bubble that reinforces its own notions.
Put another way, it’s awfully hard to disrupt the thing you’re paid and rewarded to do. We spend so much our lives optimizing the systems that support us that to think of altering them is terrifying.
It’s not only daunting to embrace change, but extremely difficult to know, exactly, what form that change will take. Even Mary Meeker, KCBP’s digital sage, noted in the most recent annual Internet Trendsreport that “Computing industry inflection points are typically only obvious with hindsight.”
Then, how do we disrupt our myopic mindset?
Like most progress in our world, the answer lies in empathy. Stepping outside our own frame of reference in order to understand the point of view of others (in this case, disruptive forces) is the only way of gaining insight to point us in the direction of where we should adapt and grow.
Empathy is an ability, not a feeling. Like any ability, empathy can be practiced and improved with exercise. To empathize and understand disruptive forces, consider the three different pillars that comprise a disrupter’s value proposition:
- Experience—the creation of a better experience that delights by eliminating frictions and annoyances, creating more choice, and feeling more personalized and relevant.
- Value—not necessarily (just) a reduction in cost, but also an improvement in the perception of what people get for their money.
- Ethos—making people feel as if they are participating in a movement they can believe in, and that they are, themselves, helping to make the world a better place.
Empathy allows these pillars to be used as lenses to take a clear-eyed look at your potential challenges: How do disruptive forces view you? How do your customers view you? What might you change or improve?
It’s important to note what this is not: it does not mean not having convictions. It does not mean letting yourself be swayed by fads, or following the crowd mindlessly. It does not mean not valuing the past. It does not mean not fighting for things worth saving.
But, for incumbents, it does mean being willing to stop outside of a position of power, privilege, and comfort to appreciate (in the sincerest meaning of that word) the forces driving change in business, culture, and society as a whole. It means being honest about how your customers see you. It does mean putting yourself in the position of your competitors, and seeing your business from their point of view.
From the perspective of the disrupter, the world — including what you built your career and business on — is imperfect and incomplete. The disrupters longs to fix what they see as broken. They’re optimistic. They believe things can be better than they are. This is something that every incumbent would do well to make a part of their everyday outlook.
Eleanor Roosevelt, in her book You Learn by Living, famously noted: “Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product.” By this, she meant that one cannot find happiness by seeking it out in and of itself, but instead will only enjoy it through a life well-lived. Likewise, it’s a mistake to look at innovation as a deliverable. Disrupting myopia, and breaking out of one’s current frame of reference, should not be seen as an isolated tactic; to have true impact, continual learning, growth, and evolution must be a constant, and become part of one’s modus operandi.