It’s on the tips of the lips of everyone who’s anyone. Everything and everyone seems to be at risk of falling into the wave of industry upheaval, and more to the point, it has become an industry in and of itself; disruption for disruption sake. Like a large stone thrown into a small pond, it not only upends the equilibrium of the waters, but often unintended consequences arise. And the larger the stone, the bigger the effect, feeding back in on itself until what is left behind sometimes resembles more a muddy puddle and not the wide open clear waters of opportunity.

"disorder—a combina­tion of the breakdown of old, established orders and the extremely unpredictable nature of our age"

Noreena Hertz

New technologies and new business models are testing the waters, creating waves in the historically still waters of entrenched industries. New methods and processes are allowing innovative ideas to rapidly expand, and while many don’t survive and are instead absorbed back into the pool, even these are learnt from and re-applied into the next iteration. New technology is providing ever increasing and cost effective ways to breach existing barriers of entry into industries, allowing companies (either small or large) to swim in previously fenced off waters.

For many, the idea of disruption is focused primarily around providing new, innovative products or services to better enable their present, or future, customers. Whether it’s cutting out middle-men in supply chains, or applying new business solutions, or creating processes with enhanced tools, or offering a consumer a new way to do existing tasks more efficiently, much of the excitement is market focused; new revenue opportunities, eliminating competitors, reducing costs.

But disruption effects everyone in the pond (and those close to the shore), and while disruption at a company level is well known, the broader effects that may arise as we shift to a faster changing environment and more agile industries seem to be less focused on. We throw the stones, watch them splash into the water, and marvel at the ripples, rarely acknowledging the disruption being wrought on important factors in both innovation, marketing, and society as a whole. What of the impact on employees, to society, to innovation itself?

Lifting the rocks of creation

Disruption, by its very nature, can lead to confusion. Indeed, you could say it’s a state OF confusion, not just a cause. While innovating new products or services, we sometimes fail to be aware of the negative reactions we all have to untested waters, the ambiguity of solutions in unknown markets. In the act of making, we are asked to assume roles that go against our natural inclinations. Our ideas, the stones that we want to throw to create the biggest waves, are sometimes elusive. Often, unknowingly, we react against the very forces of creation.

"What we agree with leaves us inactive, but contradiction makes us productive."

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The momentary state of confusion that arises from disruption is a fantastic enabler of original thought, and when people are embedded in a project that aims to disrupt, ideas and solutions need to be free flowing.

However, as multiple psychological studies performed consistently tell us, it is that people have a natural tendency to avoid confusion; it’s automatic, it’s inherent in all of us. What this means for ideation though is that when we are in that state of confusion, our subconscious will often look for and agree with the first solution that it comes across which will provide clarity and certainty to the consciousness. People enter into a period of pattern matching, searching for a solution to alleviate the sense of disorientation that has arisen from the very thing they are trying to achieve.

The implications should be clear; left unchecked, too much disruption can cause a freeze in the creative process as the individual attempts to find certainty. Managing the balance between the creative force of uncertainty and the need for certainty is achievable, but not if we’re constantly being inundated with waves of confusion, not if we are left leaderless, not if we are without a clear goal to focus on.

Casting the stones and making a splash

While industries are getting disrupted, little thought is given to those who work within that industry and are immediately, and often negatively, impacted. And it’s not just as the stones hit the water that is when they are faced with the most upheaval. While the idea, the stone, is in the air and flying toward the pond, expectations and anxiety are building within.

Most of the focus forever seems to be on how the customer will react. However when change occurs within either an industry or business, either as an initiative to improve internal processes or being disrupted from competition, it can be unsettling, even traumatic, for workers within those organisations. Change within larger organisations can be slow to implement due, in part, to the natural resistances we all have to the state of confusion brought on by disruption, and anxiety around potential role changes and/or loss of position; is my job secure, will I need to reskill, can I afford to, what happens if I can’t… just a few of the many question workers will ask. Uncertainty abounds, and without proper change management, often they are left unresolved until it’s too late for the workers to adapt.

The risk in this should be obvious; the very people we seek to implement the changes can be torn between performance and security – working towards the goal, and trying not to be caught up in the aftermath. Workplace confidence slides if employees are not made to feel a part of the endeavour, or have certainty in the transition from their current place in the organisation. When momentum needs to be building, these worries can be a drag, often meaning the stone falls far short of it's intended target.

Overflowing the banks

In the wider society, the rate of disruption can also lead to situations where people will reject something because it is new, or resolve their opinion around an existing idea that could be counter to the service or product on offer. As mentioned above, in a state of confusion, people have processes that automatically kick in to help deal with that state. Not only will they grasp the first piece of content that makes sense and act accordingly, they will also attempt to assimilate the information that resulted in that confused state and warp it to match their preexisting biases. They will stand firm as the waters rage around them, denying or rationalising away what is happening.

"Let's stick to facts. There has never been a safer, more certain way of keeping the peace. So whatever's happening, you can rest assured, Hy Brasil is not sinking. Repeat, not sinking."

King Arnulf - Eric The Viking

For example, in releasing a new product in an already rapidly changing market, a consumer may see it as ‘just another item of X’ no matter how revolutionary or industry changing that product is - usually because they HAVE seen many come and go before it. Or they will reject it out of hand because of where it comes from. This is seen in politics where an argument that would normally cause a re-evaluation of a currently held belief would be shrugged off, even if true and logical and irrefutable, with a statement like ‘well of course they WOULD say that’, ensuring denier’s own stance by automatically classifying anything said by an opponent as ‘wrong’.

A failure of any launch, whether it be a product, service, or the process of innovation itself, is sometimes the result of poor communication. It is not enough to think that people will see the wave front coming and will surf those waves as they wash your competition away. A clear, consistent, and empathetic message needs to be provided to encourage them to dive into the water; and even if you get them to only stick a toe in, if you show that the water’s not as hot or cold as they were expecting, it may be enough for them to go all in.

A stone too big for the pond

Disruption for disruption sake doesn’t work for every industry. Sometimes a softly, softly approach is required. There are ponds whose waters contain certain fish that must be handled with care and a large enough stone, or multiple smaller stones, can leave not just disrupted industries behind, but also impact negatively on the welfare of social groups who have no defence.

Take education. There is so much going on in that sector, with new start-ups offering technological solutions to improve results, or teacher/student (or teacher/department) communication, it would be folly to take every new initiative and apply it wholesale. Blog article after blog article telling teachers (and to an extent parents) what and how they should be teaching, all spruiking some new wave of education thought spawned from think tanks or from countries that do not have the same political or social environment. Teachers being put under ever more pressure from performance reports that didn’t exist, no needed to exist, a decade ago.

Think of what is at risk. If it works, great, but if it fails you potentially could lose whole generations, forcing them (and the system) to work harder in order to catch-up or re-evaluate and apply the next initiative that comes along. The issues are apparent; without adequate testing, new initiatives remain unknown in both mass application or final outcomes, risks are underestimated, and those requirements that would come about by prolonged exposure to deal with the inevitable exceptions are missed; more people fall through the gaps.

The splash-back

As the rate of change increases, organisations, and employees, are put under ever more levels of pressure; pressure from competition, pressure from share markets, pressure to come up with that next new thing. As this pressure increases, so does the risk associated with taking shortcuts to achieve those results. If not given the time to adapt to these changes, the human inclination to make hasty, ill-advised, or ‘safe’ decisions come to the fore, relying on automatic processes and base assumptions to achieve the short term targets.

"When making a decision, we will less frequently enjoy the luxury of a fully considered analysis of the total situation but will revert increasingly to a focus on a single, usually reliable feature of it."

Robert B. Cialdini, PH.D - INFLUENCE: The Psychology of Persuasion

When having to generate new styles or patterns at a more rapid rate, as can be seen in the ‘fast-fashion’ phenomena sweeping the clothing industry, we also see a rise in blatant rip-offs, pattern appropriation without appropriate accreditation or royalties, or patent infringement. The pressure to BE creative, to be innovative puts unrealistic expectations on the idea generators. The splash-back of the disruption sweeps away those who picked up the stones to begin with.

Creativity and innovation become a commodity that mistakenly is thought of as not only repeatable, but having the ability to be generated at consistent rates, always on tap. Those areas that a company usually seeks out to counter competition, or when faced with disruptive initiatives, fail; warn out and dried up.

The wash up

The aims, if there are any, of the present environment of rapid change and innovation provide incredible opportunities for those who can adapt the quickest, but also great risk for those caught out with aged products and services, or left struggling with the inertia of changing the business culture of a large corporation. While strategies are in place for companies to come to grips with the present situation, we need to ensure that the oft overlooked stakeholders are covered by these strategies as well.

Let’s not be so focused on blue skies that we fail to notice what is in the waters. They are after all our customers, our work force, our future, our drivers of innovation.


Akqire is a strategic design company located in Melbourne, Australia. We are a team of experienced thinkers and creative problem solvers. We work with businesses to drive innovation, identify opportunities and design meaningful products and user experiences that grow brands and delight customers.