Disrupt Yourself Before the Marketplace Does It for You

“We need to go to New York and tell them two years. They should actually forecast us losing money for two years. That’s what it’s going to take to turn this around now. Let’s tell them their head count to revenue and cost containment plan is complete bullshit. If that’s the plan they can find other executives to execute it. We stand firm and we tell it to their face.”

I was fueled by plenty of vodka soda energy and I wasn’t holding back. The time for holding back had long passed. Our division was facing massive disruption and the great recession had us staring down a pretty significant gap between our performance expectations and actual numbers. In short, we were in a bad spot with no clear strategy for a course correction. That didn’t sit right with me, and over dinner I let my boss know.

Cost containment isn’t a growth strategy and our holding company wanted us to cut way too deep. When you work for a publicly traded company with C-suite executives incentivized purely on short-term earnings, thinking for the long term requires incredible discipline, integrity, humility and expertise. That wasn’t our move and I openly expressed my sentiment about the game plan. I didn’t believe and couldn’t buy in, so I wanted us to take our shot at going all-in, or going out in a blaze of glory.

My boss was a wise and patient man. He listened and offered his own perspective that was markedly different than my own. He was my mentor and the best boss I had ever known. His counsel offered real insight into our new reality. Bottom line, it was too late. We waited too long to confront the brutal facts. Without an action plan to reinvent, we now had to navigate the harsh reality of disruption.

I still have one of the final decks I prepared during my corporate career. I went with the following title slide:

A case study in large corporation bureaucracy, micro mismanagement, and practices that disengage talent leading to underperformance

We never had our blaze of glory standoff in New York, but I anticipated that the presentation could be my swan song. I still think it was a pretty epic presentation. My conclusion slide acknowledged one possible outcome:

I understand actions have consequences. I will accept mine.
Thank you.

I didn’t get fired. I did volunteer myself into our next round of layoffs. It was time. After a 17-year run, I was firing up a brand new Macbook Pro at my kitchen table, prepared to reinvent myself. Adversity is a powerful teacher and here is one of the most valuable lessons I learned:

Success by its very nature breeds complacency.

It’s easy to fall in love with the formula for success. It’s understandable when we don’t want to deviate from what’s worked in the past. However, it’s also a recipe for getting disrupted. Past success is no longer a good indicator of future performance. The world is changing fast and if you aren’t changing with it, you run the risk of disruption. The list of successful, category dominant companies that no longer exist today is quite long.

Don’t get stuck in the status quo. Disrupt yourself before the marketplace does it for you.

This advice isn’t just for big business. It applies to every entrepreneur, engineer, educator, sales professional, architect, banker, insurance agent and the list goes on. When the world changes, we have to change with it. So, how can we futureproof our organizations and careers? Here are 5 ideas to consider.

Question Every Assumption

Stay unstuck by challenging the status quo consistently. Go ahead and break what’s working in favor of making it work better! Adopt a mindset of productive paranoia and make continuous improvement a mandate. Did you get a little bit better today?

Conduct Little Experiments

Test – Measure – Iterate. Notice I didn’t use the word failure because it’s not relevant. The goal of an experiment isn’t the outcome. It’s the education. Stay in the learning lane! What three experiments are you conducting right now that will deliver data you can use to move the business into the future?

Get Closer To Your Customers

Customers want to be understood. You can grow quickly when you’re not afraid to ask for feedback, listen to what customers want, and make decisions to serve customers from a place of deeper understanding and partnership. Learning from and evolving with your customers is a smart way to approach the future of work. Have you identified the client advisory board that is helping shape the next iteration of your strategy?

Disagree and Commit

Leaders driving decisions need to show up prepared to speak their mind freely, even if it means hard and heated discussion. Conflict, tension and debate are healthy as long as people focus on attacking the issues, and not one another. However, everyone must commit to the decisions once they’re made, regardless of whether they agree or disagree. Leadership alignment is critical to execution. You have to be all in or out. Does your culture invite people to challenge ideas and each other? Are you committed wholly to decisions once they are made?

DYOB Strategy

Amateurs react. Leaders anticipate and take aggressive action to advance the organization. The marketplace punishes an organization (and individual) that isn’t willing to evolve. Start now by working on a Disrupt Your Own Business strategy. Confront reality and understand where you are vulnerable. If you were going to start the business today, what would you do differently? If you had to compete directly with yourself, how would you do it?

I’ve lived through the consequences of failing to anticipate marketplace disruption once. I learned the hard way and I am better for it. It won’t happen again.

Adapt and thrive!

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