There’s a not-for-profit organization I’ve gotten involved with, which is in the middle of something of a re-invention of itself. As part of that, they have created mission, vision and values statements.
This group is a very different kind of organization from other non-profits I’m accustomed to. Seeing them working out their identity and goals is really interesting, particularly one of their goals, which is to disrupt the broader industry and landscape of which their organization is a part. It’s an explicit part of their statement.
The group is not new to the industry, but they’re not a niche that tends to be considered “sexy,” or that currently has influence commensurate with their contributions. They plan to change that, and it’s overdue.
I’ve seen statements addressing dismantling negative societal systems from non-profits before, but not a business-based establishment. And like many others, I’ve seen too much “disruption” in the tech industry. (Those quotation marks are doing a lot of heavy lifting.) But I love this disruption inclusion.
Let’s face it, too much of what tech crows about as disruption… isn’t. Yes, there are technologies that have disrupted entrenched industries and changed the world – ecommerce, mobile phones, GPS.
There have also been technologies that arguably created new industries more than disrupting existing ones, and that definitely disrupted society and our lives. Revolution is not really incremental, after all.
However, TikTok for squirrels or yet another urban scooter operation are not disruptions. That ain’t what Clayton Christensen had in mind.
A true disruption has to solve a big problem, change entrenched habits, break monopolies and/or innovation stagnation, enable competition, or grow new segments of jobs and the economy. (Historically, they’ve also had a bad habit of wrecking the environment in new or additionally terrible ways…)
I think real disruption should be a goal – though not the only one – of more organizations, whether they’re new, keepin’ on or re-inventing themselves.
It enables orgs to really look at their landscape, whether that’s an industry, a geographic area, the state of a particular technology, or a part of society at present. It enables them to say, “This is what exists, this is who it’s working for, but this is what’s missing and or where the inequality (or straight up harm) is.”
It also enables organizations to concretely say, “This is what we will do about it and why it matters. This is how we will make things better.”
Now, this may just sound like standard due diligence, competitive analysis or building a business plan, but not really. It sets out from the beginning, renaissance, or inflection point acknowledging that the organization and its people are a part of an existing flawed structure, and how. But also how they will be part of dismantling or substantively changing that structure.
It creates a framework and focus that can be referred to and remind people what they’re working toward. That can be easy to lose sight of in the day-to-day nitty gritty of building and running organizations.
With every major step, pivot or inflection point in growth, people in the organization can check in. Does this help advance disruption? If so, is it clear how, for whom, and potentially how much? Is it causing unforeseen harm? Could it be more ambitious? If it doesn’t, why not? What is it serving, and is that something the organization’s needs as well, or is it a distraction from the big goals?
Now, where companies are concerned, obviously a big goal of growth is to make money. Not much runs without it, after all. However, many companies that only have that goal have traditionally done a lot of bad things and treated a lot of people very badly.
Companies that have more goals and a broader focus may not grow as quickly or make the same shareholder dividends. But they’re more sustainable, they take care of people, they invest in their communities. And they make money.
They can also learn about other organizations with similar goals. So smaller groups become bigger ones. Where everyone understands the point of working toward disruption, while bringing more collective effort to it.
The disruptive perspective also shifts a view that can be intimidating. Real disruption is really hard. Entrenched companies and industries and cultures got that way over time.
First there was first-mover advantage, then making themselves part of people’s habitual lives, then getting so big that they can dictate how the industry runs, and just crush or absorb the competition.
But nothing is forever. History shows us that over and over. Something else always comes along. The fact that the number of users or size of the companies or their market caps now are bigger than they’ve ever been, well, it’s all relative. It goes for companies, industries, even financial systems. (I see you over there, capitalism.)
In the Gilded Age there were people whose wealth and power seemed nearly incomprehensible in an era of dizzying progress (and degradation). Same in the 17th century when global trade exploded, with its power and influence in the hands of a select few. But Amazon isn’t run by a Rockefeller. And nothing in your home arrived courtesy of the Dutch East India Company.
And so I am totally in the corner of the people involved in this non-profit, and their goal to disrupt their industry. Perhaps it doesn’t hurt that they’re mostly women. After all, you may not have heard of the Matchgirls’ Strike, for example. But the effects of their efforts are felt in labour even today. Possibly increasingly so, since many of their lessons seem to have been forgotten.
Any history buff can give you plenty of examples of the inevitability of change. No company is too big to fail. No industry is too entrenched to be disrupted.
Might be a good idea to check which side you’re on.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.