Disruption Is Not a Career Strategy

by Sharlyn Lauby on July 8, 2012

Disrupt (definition): to break apart, to throw into disorder, to interrupt the normal course.

It’s the new corporate buzzword. First, we colored outside the lines. Then we thought outside the box. And now, we just disrupt. Personally, I just can’t get into the “disruption” concept. It’s probably old skool semantics but IMHO, disrupt has more than just a tinge of disrespectful in it.

I totally understand and embrace the idea of challenging conventional wisdom – the basis of disruption. Reminds me of Big Bang Theory’s 3 person chess. It’s fine to challenge the tradition without destroying the game.

(Enter sarcasm here.) The thing is, I’m not seeing employment ads for DISRUPTORS WANTED. I don’t hear about job descriptions adding disruption as an essential skill. And I haven’t heard of any company adding quality and quantity of disruption on their performance appraisals. I’ve also never had a hiring manager tell me they want more disruptors on their team.

Of course, I’m being very tongue and cheek here but, on some level, I think there’s a reason. Disruption isn’t a goal. It’s not a career strategy. If your goal is to shake up the status quo, you have to really know what you’re doing and carefully plan your thoughts and actions. You have to seek buy-in. You need to respect the past while sharing your vision for the future. And all of those things don’t actually fit with the perception of disruption.

Here’s a story. Years ago, I worked with a guy who totally and completely believed in shaking up the status quo. He was passionate about it. There were no sacred cows. It didn’t matter if the process worked or didn’t work. There was thrill to blowing stuff up (figuratively not literally). It didn’t stop with processes. People were subjected to it: pushed way beyond comfort zones, stressed to the max, and overwhelmed with change.

Was he a creative, charismatic leader? Yep. Did his disruption leave body bags all along the way? Yep. Was he ultimately successful as a disruptor? No, because his disruption wasn’t sensitive to the needs of people or the organization. After a short while, whenever people saw him coming, they ran the other way.

In the recent IBM CEO study, a quote captured it beautifully, “As CEOs open up their organizations, they are not inviting chaos. The need for control remains, but it is evolving into a new form – one better suited to the complexity and pace of business today.”

Something to consider: Do you want the leadership in your organization calling you disruptive? Or successful at creating change through innovative, collaborative leadership?

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