How to be disruptive: a retrospective primer, with meerkats.

‘Disruptive’ doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Being disruptive used to mean you’d be in trouble pretty soon: with your teachers, your parents; with other kids’ parents. You know — grown-ups. Back then, being disruptive was seen as bad, and not something that would get you very far in life, beyond maybe the head teacher’s office.

Times change. ‘Disruptive’ has now acquired cachet, to the point where it seems in danger of becoming one of those overused words (see also content, innovation, gameification, strategy, etc.) signifying that the speaker might not actually make things for a living1. But underneath all the buzzwords and hype is a kernel of truth: there’s loads of potential value in disrupting those patterns that keep you, or your organisation, down. Shake things up a little.

(I’m not talking about knock-and-run here, by the way — it’s much more like “hmm, I wonder what happens if I do … this?” It’s actually very science lab.)

Over the last couple of months, while I’ve been literally and metaphorically packing up my office, I’ve been thinking a lot about disruptivity and its role in my recent career. I’m using the word ‘disruptivity’ deliberately here, rather than ‘disruptiveness’ or ‘disruption’, since both of those seem to me to connote someone else having screwed something up in a way that is antisocial and anti-progress. Disruptivity is good disruption: it has agency, and can number among its antonyms complacency, stagnation, and that nice cozy place with the sofas, the ‘comfort zone’.

It’s easy to stay inside your comfort zone if you work in a big organisation: there are established procedures and methods, and a culture of handing these things down to the next person. In a big organisation, you really don’ t have to think too hard if you don’t want to, because nearly any question you care to ask has an answer that begins “well, the last time we had to do that, …” I guess it’s probably not worth getting too pissy with organisations about this, because human beings have behaved this way for tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of years, and on the whole it’s served us pretty well. But the flip side of organisational memory is that procedures and practices have a way of stifling creative thinking by squashing people down into silos. You are a lecturer; you are a psychologist. You will give lectures in a prescribed format, in which you will talk about psychology as defined by the requisite accrediting body. You will go to psychology conferences and conduct psychology research. You are a subject-matter expert.

And yeah, I was pretty compliant to begin with. I mean, I didn’t know anything; who does, after spending most of their life in formal education? But, after several years’ consideration, my response to this way of working is “Yeah … no.”

There’s a technique in the cognitive psychology literature called analogical problem-solving [PDF], in which you take your bleeding-edge science problem and try to reframe it in a more familiar context. Analogical problem-solving allows you to take advantage of all the schemas and chunking you’ve developed by spending time in the familiar domain, thereby freeing up more of your cognitive resources to think about the problem at hand. It strikes me that an important prerequisite for disruptivity is the desire or ability to travel towards unfamiliar domains — exploring foreign spaces and the behaviour of the people who live/work there can actually help you think about your existing problems in new ways.

Here’s the thing: all the really cool people I meet are the ones sticking their heads out of their organisationally-sanctioned silos, and asking “Hey, what are those people over there doing, and might it be of value to us?” — the meerkats of the workplace, if you like. Curiosity is disruptive; it’s pretty hard to remain in your comfort-zone when you’ve wandered out of your area of expertise and into someone else’s. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy doing peer observations with my lecturing colleagues: you see styles of teaching and ways of thinking about classroom interaction that you’d otherwise never be exposed to. Good conferences (you know, the ones where there’s space for conversation, not just showboating) are the same.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it actually seems easier to cross these borders on the Internet than in one’s own workplace, maybe because people who are into online networking have effectively put up a sign on their virtual office door that says “please, bother me — I love it!” Compare that with how it feels trying to set up a meeting about that thing with that guy across campus when you’re both really busy. Asynchronous digital media are intrinsically disruptive, because they put you next to people in countries, cultures and professions that you’d never otherwise know anything about — and those people are often meerkats with disruptive ideas of their own. Though I didn’t know it at the time, signing up to Twitter was one of the smartest things I could have done for my career. In fact, about half of those people currently most influential in my life have come to me through the Internets — and they are, without exception, cross-disciplinary ninjas, people for whom the idea of existing in just one silo is just plain ridiculous.

Like Richard Wiseman’s studies showing that ‘lucky’ people are really just those who notice new possibilities [PDF], a big part of embracing disruptivity comes from being open to the potential in life’s random encounters. Example: several years ago, through an old friend of my husband’s, I met the very lovely Rachel Potts. Her job had nothing to do with my job: she worked as a technical author for a software company, while I was a psychology lecturer. But we kept having the most awesome long conversations about communication. And one eventual consequence of this was that I ended up giving a talk at Technical Communication UK. Until then, I’d barely known that technical communicators even existed, much less that they might be interested in applying cognitive psychology to their own work. But boy, were they. And so,
in making my own journey out into a scary new space, it seems like I disrupted a few other people’s complacency, too. (Of course, you can argue that by attending a professional conference, those people had signalled that they were looking for a bit of disruption in their working lives — but props nevertheless to the TCUK team for expanding their speaker base beyond the traditional edges of technical communication.)

If your social circle isn’t putting you together with people who understand your geek thang, just get out there and talk to people who work in a different area. From my conversations with technical writers (most of which were mediated via Twitter; don’t diss the 140), I learned about software simulation. That struck me as pretty cool, so I learned how to use Adobe Captivate and, with a little help and only minor drama, created some resources to help my students learn how to drive statistics software. Conversations with technical authors also helped steered me towards the field of user experience, which has come to form such a huge part of the way I think about interfaces, learning and cognition that I’m shifting careers to go work in UX. The consequences of disruptivity are sometimes unpredictable, but they may also be transformative.

Maybe you like the idea of disruptivity and the cultural exchange of visiting someone else’s sandbox, but career changes and meeting people all sounds a bit extreme? Well, you don’t even have to introduce yourself: just read the Internets. There are all manner of smart bloggers out there who might not do what you do, but who write about it so clearly that you get it, and you get why it’s relevant to you. If you work with people and/or ideas (and if you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure that you do), I’d particularly recommend Seth Godin and Rands, and also, though he’s perhaps more of an acquired taste, Merlin Mann.

Your search doesn’t even have to be all that targeted: for me, it started almost by accident with Lawrence Lessig’s ‘Free Culture’ talk from OSCON 20022. What possible value could a psychology lecturer find in a long talk about copyright? Okay, how about a perspective-shifting way of delivering lectures? Lessig’s presentation, and this talk by Dick Hardt, provided the change of reference-frame I needed to give my teaching a good kick up the ass. The ensuing domino effect of making those changes led to research, funding, and paid consultancy, plus a couple of international conferences. And it hooked me up with some really interesting and cool people, and they turned me on to a whole bunch of other new stuff to use in the classroom, like Pecha Kucha. Disruption begets disruption, and after that it’s pretty hard to go back into your silo.

No, check that: it’s impossible to go back into your silo. Disruptivity means rejecting the easy life. You will no longer be satisfied with the explanation that “this is how we do things around here”, because you will know that out there, someone else is doing it better, smarter, more efficiently. You will know this because I read a thing, wait, let me email you the link … You won’t win every argument this way, but you will go forth armed with evidence, and your organisation will be a better place for most of your interventions, which of course is what the whole disruptivity thing is all about.

Lastly, if you really want to be disruptive, leave. [If there's one link from this post that encapsulates disruptivity, it's that one. Click through and read; it's only short.] Leaving isn’t an inevitable consequence of embracing disruptivity, but I’d say it’s a likely one. I mean, you can’t spend all that time out of your silo and not wonder about what else might be out there. But consider, too, that your decision to leave also changes things for the organisation you are leaving. It forces your manager to think about whether you need to be replaced. Co-workers who rely on you will have to seek out alternatives; maybe your decision to leave will prompt some of them to become meerkats. Everyone gets a reminder that there is life out there beyond the organisation’s walls, and I consider that to be an inherently good thing.

So, yeah: leaving an organisation can be your last gift of disruptivity. Make it a good one :)

[This post is dedicated to all my awesome colleagues at UCLan who have borne my clumsy attempts at disruptivity with incredible grace and patience. I will miss you more than I can say.]

[Students — you're getting a post of your own. Watch this space.]

1 I kid, mostly. I mean, I use these words a lot. But I also think that, when the buzzwords start flying, it’s useful to gauge the ratio between talk and eventual action. And there is a lot of talk on the Internets.

2 In fact, if you want to live a more disruptive life, you should probably just hang out with my husband, since he was the one who turned me on to the Lessig talk, and he stumbles upon a lot of interesting and diverse content.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “How to be disruptive: a retrospective primer, with meerkats.

  1. I really enjoyed reading your post, and I see lots of other cool things on your blog to read.

    Just wanted to say that I think there’s a disruptivity paradox in large organizations. It goes something like this: Disruptivity is scary, I suppose because there’s perceived risk that the traditionally important stuff won’t get done. So there is resistance. But we all—even managers, and especially senior ones—thrive on disruptivity and secretly pray for it every day.

    Managers should just stand up sometimes and say You have permission to disrupt!

    • Hi Matt,

      Thanks for stopping by, and I’m glad you’re enjoying my post(s).

      I hadn’t heard of the disruptivity paradox before, though I recognise the conflict. I love the idea of management exhorting people to be disruptive! While I’d love to see this become part of the fabric of all organisations, I recognise that that might be a bit too radical for some right away – maybe what we need to kickstart the idea at all is International Disruptivity Day ;o)

      Cheers,

      Chris

  2. An excellent, thought provoking post. Disruptivity ties in with creativity too, I believe. If we live our lives with disruption as a prime motivator we are likely to seek creative solution. Thanks for sharing this with your PLN!

    • Hi Steve

      Thanks for stopping by, and I’m glad this resonated with you :) I confess that I’m intrinsically motivated by disruptivity — probably because without it I would feel bored or stagnant. I try to put it to good use, though … ;)

      Cheers,

      Chris

  3. My thoughts exactly. You might like disruptivity.wordpress.com

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