Being a Disruptor and Not Getting Fired
“Our company executives don’t get it!”
I just finished giving a speech to a company about the power of innovation and disrupting the status quo in corporations. As I finished, two (very frustrated) employees came to talk to me. They were in a role that put them at the intersection of understanding customer needs and helping their company build products and solutions to meet those demands. It is a powerful place to be within a company yet they felt helpless. They perceived that their company did not take enough risk, that their CEO did “not get it,” and too many of their people were too risk-averse.
What is interesting is that these professionals had the technical skills, access to budgets, and even a responsibility to drive innovation and change. They had a sense that something was wrong but no capacity to make a change. In effect, they were not disruptors.
The easy (and mostly tried-and-true) approach to work is to adopt the status quo. And adopting the status quo is a good way to maintain your role. But the way to grow your career — and your organization as a result — is to be a disruptor or even a provocateur. The trick is satisfying that role in a way that creates value and growth and does not get you fired. That is the essence of a true disruptor in business.
Business Needs Disruptors
Investors reward companies when they deliver predictable results every quarter. That pursuit of security can lead to routines, which can create complacency. To an extent, the situation makes a lot of sense. Businesses have to deliver results. Schedules and structures help companies follow a plan that assures and proves results. And no matter how big the company is or what sector it serves, every organization is populated by humans. And most humans are programmed to avoid risk and enjoy the safety and comfort of routine. Those upsides have downsides. Most notably, artificial comfort and systemic complacency.
Companies need disruptors — the provocateurs who have the vision to see the need for change and the courage to help the company to pivot when it needs to pivot and transform when it needs to evolve.
The rank, role, and title of these individuals range from the obvious, like Chief Innovation Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, or division president, to product manager, strategist, analyst and more. Regardless of where they sit, the disruptors are essential for keeping the organization ahead of the unpredictable realities of the marketplace and competition.
Even though the role of the disruptor or provocateur is indisputably important to the health and resilience of the organization, it’s not one that many people seek. There is no formal job title or description, and the role is easily rejected by most companies’ cultures, processes, and systems. The reality is, it is usually given to someone whose explicit task is to chart a new course for the organization. That’s fair. We shouldn’t drive change for the sake of change. Doing so should be in response to the evolving needs of customers and the realities of the market. But, as I hear from executives in all types of industries, conformity and fear of risk too often blind people to the demands of customers and markets that should prompt change.
We need that person who can see a need and has the confidence to lead the change.
Defining the Disruptor
Some of us hear the term disruptor and think of someone who causes radical change. I’ve had people tell me they worry that disruptors are negatively perceived as being all about disturbance. I argue we should view a disruptor in the organization as an opportunity. Big companies are excellent at making routines the norm. I believe you need some disturbance for the healthy and profitable growth of the company. That said, disruption needs to be productive.
The disruptor should be someone who seeks to challenge the status quo to create innovative solutions, processes, and strategies that yield positive growth. That distinction is the reason why the disruptor needs to be a provocateur and the most rational person in the room, at the same time.
Needed But Maligned
I had a boss once who gave me striking career advice that I still carry. He shared that he always sought roles that had one of two outcomes: it either would get him promoted or fired. There’s a logic behind this seemingly contradictory career approach. To advance your career in a big company, you need to take risks. The greater the impact of that risk, the greater the reward or consequence. In fairness, these extreme outcomes may not apply directly to every role in a corporation, but the spirit does. You have to create enough movement, take enough risk, and use the right amount of pragmatism to move yourself, your career, and the organization forward.
I have met many people who complain that the company is “not ready” for them. They find themselves sidelined (at best) and fired (at worst). While the company may make it difficult for a disruptor to succeed, the reality is in most cases the “fault” lies with the individual. It’s easy to be disruptive without consequence. It’s not easy to be a provocateur, especially in a traditional business environment. The company may reject (fire, turn down, minimize) the individual not only because they are innovative or disruptive, but rather because of HOW they’re trying to do it.
The lesson here is this. It may feel “safe” to stand still. Complacency feels like a warm blanket of safety that protects you from the bitter cold reality that the world is advancing faster than you are. And it’s true that you may not get fired (at least not in an obvious way). But you may also fail to move forward. You’ll be stuck in the mud spinning your wheels.
The ‘How’ Matters (aka Don’t get fired)
It can be easy being a provocateur without consequence or impact. People approach me to share stories about how they are pushing boundaries, making noise, and challenging the status quo. They then go on and talk about how no one will listen, they are being sidelined, and the company is “just not ready for me.” The truth is, what’s usually happening is that they only have part of the equation right. Being a disruptor is about being a provocateur and indeed pushing boundaries, but it is also about making sure that the disruption actually becomes action. This motivation is the real job of the disruptor, especially in a large and complex organization.
Understanding the culture, linking to strategy, having a stakeholder plan, and being part of the economics of the business is essential for disruptors, innovators, and change leaders to be successful.
Just like it is easy to be complacent and not challenge the status quo, it is also easy to challenge and create chaos without it being grounded in reality and impact. When I think of the standout disruptors I’ve known, it’s people who are constantly challenging the status quo for a greater purpose, for growth, and for value.
There is a Provocateur in us All
It is neither natural nor not easy to be a disruptor. The role is not for everyone. Many of us like the idea of being that renegade change-maker, but few of us are wired for it. But I believe there is a provocateur in all of us. For some, it is a full-time job with a title that implies you are leading some form of change. For others, it may be a role that demands disruption but lives behind the perceived safety of a traditional title. Either way, these are our change leaders. And if you have accepted this role, make sure you understand the likely consequences of your task and have a good sense of how to navigate a journey that inspires the organization.
With it, you’re a change maker. Without it, you’re at risk of doing hard work that could end with the company landing on top of you.