Disruption! Is it the Solution?

Do you find that the old ways of doing things don’t seem to work as well any more? Small tweaks can work fine for small problems, but really shaking things up can lead us to transformative breakthroughs. In these chaotic times, disruption–adding more uncertainty to the mix—might be the key to solving stubborn problems, both collectively and individually.

Consider occupational illnesses and injuries. Although their overall rate in the United States has declined, the rate of serious injuries hasn’t budged significantly in years. For decades, we relied on the Heinrich pyramid of accident causation to design injury prevention programs and investigate accidents. Then we learned that the Heinrich model was flawed. Maybe its widespread use is linked to the persistent rate of serious injuries? Losing our basis for understanding accidents is a major disruption—but also a tremendous opportunity to create a new model that could help prevent serious accidents.

Disruptions occur constantly, both in the larger world, and within our own microcosms if we’re acting within a disruptive force. For example, online crowdfunding, the process whereby a “crowd” of individual donors contributes funds to specific projects started by others, is a disruption to traditional financing. Sites like Kickstarter have been credited with successes that would have been unachievable otherwise.

Crowdfunding could address complicated environmental problems. The United Nations Environment Programme released a report recently stating that “chemical intensification,” the growing dependence of developing economies on synthetic chemicals for economic advancement, poses grave environmental and health risks to populations worldwide. The UN concludes that “sound management of chemicals can deliver major economic benefits and support green economy.”

To address this challenge, the UN recommends capacity building: international donors providing financial assistance to emerging governments to find safer chemicals and attract investment. With crowdfunding, we could help create these green economies through such environmental sites as www.thegreencrowd.com, and scientific research sites like The #SciFund Challenge.

Disruption can be forced on us as in the Heinrich example; it can inspire us to participate, as with crowdfunding; and we can also purposely create disruption to move forward. In her article “Disrupt Yourself” (Harvard Business Review, July-August 2012), Whitney Johnson proposes four principles of self-disruption, which can help foster fresh thinking:

  1. Target a need that can be met more effectively.
  2. Identify your disruptive strengths.
  3. Step back (or sideways) in order to grow.
  4. Let your strategy emerge.

According to Johnson, each of us has disruptive strengths. These are not just things we do well, they’re things we do well that most other people can’t. Finding and using our disruptive strengths can unlock our own potential, and help other people reach theirs. Johnson says that to be our best, we must courageously self-disrupt!

We all can benefit from the power of disruption. How will you harness it?

About Kathryn Nobrega

Kathryn Nobrega is a Principal Consultant with ESIS Health, Safety, Environmental & Sustainability (HSE&S) Services. Formerly with Genentech and Specialty Technical Consultants, Kathryn helps build supportive organizational cultures and drive positive change, enabling measurable improvements in business systems and HSE&S programs.

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