How much disruption is too much?

Five years ago disruptive was a word reserved for difficult children and road works but now it seems disruptive behaviour is positively sought after - everybody wants a piece of it. It seems to have replaced innovative as the most often used phrase in the tech industry, but what does it actually mean? As a CIO, you have to ask yourself what are the associated benefits and risks of disruptive technology and how do you ensure that the first outweighs the second?

First, in my experience, at least 70 per cent of the time the phrase is meaningless! It’s just another one of those words that’s thrown into the marketing mix to try and make companies sound a little bit more ‘edgy’.

Secondly, unless a consultant can explain exactly what the technology is disrupting and why that’s a positive thing stay well clear. Technology and processes that challenge the status quo, make you think differently and broaden your horizons are one thing – technology that screws up your systems, angers your workforce and costs you time and money to put right – is quite another.

So the question is how much disruption is too much? When does welcoming the bold and the new become a recipe for disaster? Taking a leaf (stealing their idea) out of the McKinsey book here are the questions that the CIO should ask themselves before committing to any project that promises to be disruptive:

1. Is disruption actually required?
As any regular reader of my blog will know I am real champion of change. I believe that CIOs should be braver, that they should challenge old and outdated practices, look at new technology-enabled business ideas and facilitate a culture that embraces innovation. Having said all that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. There are plenty of reasons to shake things up but often many reasons not to.

2. What are you ultimately trying to achieve?
Before you undertake any programme of change its critical you are clear on the objective. It always concerns me when I see disruptive programmes being pushed through in an attempt to speed up the glacial pace of business decision-making. Disruption should never be an end in itself.

3. Is the timing right?
It is easy for a good idea to become a bad idea because of poor timing. This is where the CIO’s understanding of the wider issues within the business become critical. Is it the right time in the business cycle? Where are the board’s priorities? Is the business in a position to withstand/ benefit from disruption right now? Remember, just because it isn’t right now doesn’t mean it won’t be right in the future. Don’t be afraid of waiting.

4. What do they mean by ‘disruptive’?
Disruptive is good when it involves technology, processes and a business change that makes you look at things in a new way; that challenges the old and opens new horizons in terms of what/how/why/when things are done. Bad disruption creates headaches for the employees, disrupts business operations and creates far more new issues and internal politics than it solves. So ask yourself who does disruption really benefit? Unless you are confident that the business and the customer benefits are clear be cautious. There is no point in spending time and money just to prove that you are capable of being innovative.

5. Do you have the environment available to test the technology effectively?
Internal labs are already becoming a more frequently used tool to drive change in a business and  this is exactly the type of occasion when having this kind of set up has real value. If the risk/benefit calculation proves a little narrow for comfort then the ability to test out the technology on your existing systems – in a safe and controlled way – could be the difference between delight and disaster. (WARNING: Internal Labs will only be successful  if they are owned by the business. New technology MUST be applied to a business idea and launched to real customers as part of testing.

6. Do you have buy-in from the board?
There is a big difference between liking the concept of disruptive innovation and actually having the balls to implement it. A lot of boards these days like to talk the talk but it is important to check that they are just as keen to walk the walk. With anything that promises a radical change from the past there are going to be challenges – the board needs to be clear what these are likely to be and whether they are happy to accept them.  It is also vital that the CEO has the trust of any shareholders to ensure full support of any disruptive transformation.

Make no mistake about it – I want to see CIOs embracing much more disruptive innovation, but that said I also want to make sure they are maximising the chances of it having the impact they are looking for. Taking a drastically different approach can bring huge success – just look at companies like Amazon – but being innovative does not mean being careless. If anything the due diligence conducted should be greater.

There is no question that for many companies the status quo will result in them being left behind, therefore there is a greater need now more than ever for them to embrace disruption. The impact that digital technology is having across every vertical – from healthcare to transport, finance to retail – is huge and only continues to grow. However, it will be the ones that really understood what disruption was going to deliver and prepared the ground accordingly that will really see the benefits.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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