The Art of Disruption

What do these things have in common?

  • Fire; the wheel; the plow.
  • Electricity; the internet; the iPhone.
  • Galileo; Newton; Einstein.
  • Martin Luther King Jr.; Gandhi; Jesus.

Each of these items or individuals caused an irreversible disruption in the course of human history. Their influence is so tightly woven into the fabric of our daily lives that we barely stop to notice or consider their effect until they show up missing or someone else comes along to further the disruption.

People may tell you they hate change. We may be reluctant to learn knew skills and assimilate new ideas, new processes or innovations, but disruption is the kind of thing the business world dreams about. Disruption is the place where billion dollar ideas are found.

A former mixer salesmen buys a small hamburger shop, applies Henry Ford's factory approach to making hamburgers and Ray Kroc brings McDonald's to life, arguably the most successful fast food business of all time. A handful of guys in a garage string together a few one's and zero's and license it to business juggernaut, IBM, and the world changes. Goliath falls and in it's place, Microsoft rises. Sergey Brinn and Larry Page make up a silly new word and build a website around the simple idea of helping people find the information they're looking for. How many times will you Google something today? Ten years ago you carried a pager. Yesterday you carried a cell phone. Today everyone speculates on what technology or business model could possibly overshadow the overwhelming reach of Apple's iPhone, iTunes or iPad. And that company continues to disrupt.

We swim in a world filled with disruption. Facebook and Twitter disrupt our social connections. Popular media disrupts our culture while politicians persist on disrupting, whether we want them to or not, almost everything else!

There is an art to disruption.

I would also argue that there is a need for it. Disruption comes from that place deep down inside us that cries out, "There must be more!" Bill Hybels calls it a 'holy discontent', that thing inside of us that absolutely has to come out. The problem we have to solve. The wrong we have to right. The one truly original thought no one else has had. In the immortal words of the great theologian, Popeye the Sailor Man, you know your holy discontent when "You've had all you can stands and you can't stands no more!"

As leaders we are responsible for finding and implementing disruptive ideas. More than that, we are responsible for drawing disruptive ideas out of the people we lead. This disruption isn't about change for change sake. Neither is it Mao's Tse Tung's idea that, "What is needed is a permanent revolution." Instead a truly history altering, disruptive idea will find it's foundation in one of four things. A healthy disruption will:

  • Meet a fundamental need.
  • Solve an unsolvable problem.
  • Resolve an aggravating inefficiency.
  • Proclaim an undeniable truth.

The secret of disruption isn't anarchy or rebellion. The billion dollar idea isn't found outside the box. A genuinely disruptive idea is characterized by this one quote from Union Square's, Fred Wilson*, "You can't stop what people ultimately want to have happen." And there you find the art of disruption. It may begin as the idea of a counter culture revolutionary, an exciting new technology or an amazing scientific discovery, but that's not where disruptive ideas live.

Disruptive ideas have the ring truth and the strength of effectiveness. Disruptive ideas are viral, not because of clever marketing, but because they are right, they are beneficial and somehow, some way, they are already built into the fabric of who we are. All that's required is a leader to draw them out.

So, as a leader today:

  • What disruption has had the greatest affect on you?
  • What disruption are you ignoring and hoping will go away?
  • What are you doing to disrupt the lives of the people you lead?
  • Is it possible that there's a billion dollar idea inside you just waiting to get out?
  • Forget the money - is there a fundamental truth you and the people around you are ignoring? What can you do to give life to this disruption?

Stop trying to be a trend setter. Instead, meet the need; solve the problem; resolve the issue; proclaim the truth.

God Bless,

* quote from

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