Seven Key Moves Disruptive Leaders Learn to Make

Those who thrive in disruption are different than those who thrive in stability.

Those who thrive in disruption are different than those who thrive in stability.

Organizations and leaders who successfully navigate disruption – epochal changes in markets, world view and relationships – are different from those who struggle to adjust. Creativity counts more than efficiency when you’re Nokia and Apple has just released the iPhone. Innovation is more valuable than scalability when 3D printing allows lightening fast product cycles. Vision means more than certainty when you’re leading Chrysler back from the brink.

Here are seven ways disruptive leaders differ from their stability-minded peers:

  1. Value learning over defending. Often when we are confronted with new things, we feel fear — the fear of the unknown. But a defensive response — rejecting new ideas, clinging to what’s known, arguing for why things can’t change — closes us off from learning. Disruptive leaders overcome their fear and shift into curiosity about the things they fear in order to learn the new ideas they will use to shape their future.
  2. Know yourself. This means knowing the tricks, patterns and habits you fall into that keep you in the land of the known. It also means noticing when you are reacting instead of learning or creating. And it means knowing how to break out of those patterns to dance a new step when the music changes.
  3. Connect. Successful leaders and organizations create varied and deep connections with others. Especially in times of disruption, the quality of connection is key to moving forward while drawing on everyone’s talents, instead of fracturing and losing the creative spark of connection.
  4. Stay in alignment. Disruptive leaders and organizations know what they want and stay aligned with it. They value directness and truth over bureaucratic politics because they know that integrity saves them time and energy. So whether it’s setting goals and staying on the path to them, or setting deadlines and keeping them, or making any one of the hundreds of agreements that run through their day, disruptive thinkers see when they get off course and take steps to get back in integrity quickly.
  5. Experiment relentlessly, happily and cheaply. Disruptive leaders try new things and are wise enough to know that even quick and dirty experiments can give valuable information about new paths. Because they don’t invest a lot of time, money or ego in experiments, disruptive leaders aren’t upset when they fail, knowing that even failures move them forward.
  6. Have clear ideas and opinions and hold them lightly. Disruptive leaders cannot afford to be blinded by their own stubbornness. Because they value learning over being right, disruptive leaders are always willing to question their opinions and beliefs.
  7. Relax. Disruptive leaders know that all work and no play not only makes Jack a dull boy, but also depletes their energy and creativity. Rarely do disruptive ideas arrive when they are sitting at their desks cleaning out emails. They regularly take time away from thinking about work to nurture their creativity for work.
Photo: Wikimedia

You Can’t Sue Your Way to Creativity

You know things are bad when a corporation sues for defamation.

You know things are bad when a corporation sues for defamation.

Once again, a legacy business player finds itself outmaneuvered by a disruptive startup. And once again, the disrupted incumbent is heading toward the courts for protection.

It’s further proof, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, that legalism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Or in this case, the last refuge of a company caught sleeping for too long.

Fighting for Relevance

The incumbent racing for court-induced relief this time is ADP, the payroll behemoth that’s dominated the employee payroll business for generations and controls nearly 20 percent of the market. The life-threatening disruptor on the other end of the legalism? Zenefits, a two-year-old startup that is taking the market by storm (and racking up huge VC money at a current valuation of $4.5 billion).

The fight started this spring, when some Zenefits clients who also use ADP noticed ADP was blocking their Benefits plugin services. (Zenefits does not do payroll processing, but instead focuses on all the other aspects of employee benefits, providing a free cloud service for managing insurance, investments, etc. and making its money from brokering insurance sales to its clients.)

Things escalated, with Zenefits accusing ADP of trying to block its growth while it scrambles to launch a competing product, and culminated with ADP suing the upstart for defamation in federal court.

A Chance to Wake Up and Innovate

The good news for ADP shareholders is that the company has finally awakened to an existential threat. Cloud-based apps are upending high-value businesses like ADP that are based on complex proprietary systems. By coming out swinging like a barroom brawler, ADP shows it at least knows this is a serious problem. No incumbent can afford to rest on its laurels even if it dominates its market.

And here’s where Zenefits could be an unwitting ally to ADP: Zenefits is doing the market research, product development and testing for ADP, showing them how they can move to the cloud, what works, what new market segments are out there that ADP’s traditional products haven’t attracted.

The question for ADP: are they willing to listen, or is a creative response drowned out by the noise of fear that what has worked in the past might not work as well in the future?

Even more interesting: as ADP moves its business inevitably to the cloud, how will it have to change itself to operate in the new era? One tip: give up running to the courts to protect the past and instead run toward disruption to create the future.