CEO Insider

Responding to Disruption: The Right Attitude is Key

When it comes to disruptions in our personal life (such as the death of a loved one, getting divorced or finding out that we are suffering from a disease), the attitude with which we approach such setbacks can play a key role in how successful we are in overcoming them. The same is true for organizations. How organizations approach disruption determines what they do, how they do it and how persistent they are in their response. This, in turn, can be the difference between success and failure. It is, therefore, important that senior leaders approach disruption with the “right” attitude.

This raises the question: “what is the “right” attitude towards disruption and how can we get everybody in the organization to adopt it? One of the biggest misconceptions among senior executives is that we need to approach disruption in a positive way and frame it as an opportunity to exploit, rather than as a threat to defend against.

We know that executives hold such a belief because, in a survey we administered to 700 CEOs in 2019, more than 96% told us that they find the following statement to be correct: “Companies that view disruption as an opportunity rather than a threat are more likely to succeed with their responses.” Unfortunately, the academic evidence is that this belief is wrong.

The doctoral dissertation work of Clark Gilbert at Harvard Business School examined the response of the US newspaper industry to the disruption of online distribution of news. He wanted to understand why some companies responded to this threat successfully while others failed. He found that those companies that viewed online distribution of news as a threat ended up failing in their response.

More surprisingly, he also found that those companies that viewed it as an opportunity similarly failed in their response. It was only the companies that viewed it as both a threat and an opportunity that ended up developing successful response strategies.

Surprising as this finding may be, the rationale behind it is quite simple: viewing something as a threat has both benefits and costs: on the plus side, it helps us develop the necessary urgency for action; on the minus side, it makes us short-term oriented and non-thinking. Similarly, viewing something as an opportunity also has benefits and costs: on the plus side, it helps us think about the issues logically, analytically and with a long-term perspective; on the minus side, it fails to create the necessary sense of urgency that leads to action. Thus, to achieve both urgency and long-term thinking, it is best to frame disruption as both a threat and an opportunity.

Whereas the rationale for this is simple enough, the implications of approaching disruption as both a threat and an opportunity are profound. For a start, it implies that simply defending against disruption is not enough. We need a strategy that defends and attacks disruption simultaneously. As I explain in my latest book, this can sometimes be achieved through a single innovative strategy, but there are times when two separate strategies are needed, a challenge that has already been explored by other researchers. What determines if we should go with one strategy rather than two? And if we end up choosing the two-strategy option, should both strategies be implemented by the same company or should a separate unit be given the task of executing the attack strategy? These are obviously difficult questions to answer, and we do not pretend to have all the answers. But the point is that it is only when we start our thinking with the “right” attitude towards disruption that the “correct” questions are even asked.

There is a second implication that flows from the need to approach disruption as both a threat and an opportunity. Amidst all the negativity and fear associated with disruption, we want our people to rise up and join us in the fight against disruption with a positive frame of mind, one that focuses on the positive opportunities created by disruption rather than all its negatives. How do we create this positive sense of urgency that encourages people to persist in the fight, no matter how many obstacles and setbacks they encounter? Senior executives seem to believe that they can achieve this by explaining to their employees in an honest and authentic way that unless we respond, the organization’s very survival will be at stake. In our CEO survey, 74% of CEOs found the following statement to be correct: “To create a sense of urgency, you have to make your people appreciate the imminent threat of disruption and the mortal danger the company is facing.” Unfortunately, the evidence again is that this tactic is rarely effective in creating sustained urgency for change.

The data we have on people who have undergone coronary artery bypass surgery shows that 90% fail to follow their doctors’ advice to change their behaviors or lifestyle after their operations. This tells us that trying to scare people into changing does not work in producing sustainable change; yet how often do companies use the “change or die” rhetoric to rally their employees into action to respond to disruption? The patients that changed for good were those that did not aim to change to avoid early death but, instead, had positive reasons for wanting to change: being able to play with their grandchildren without feeling pain or living long enough to walk their daughters down the aisle on their wedding day. This implies that the key to sustained change is to give people a positive reason for change and, more importantly, make sure they buy into it.

This finding has a serious implication on how we can create positive urgency for change in an organization. The “wrong” way to do it is by trying to scare people; the “correct” way to do it is by giving people something positive to aim for and then spending our energy and effort “selling” it to them to win their emotional commitment to it. What makes the difference is not the “why” we need to change, but winning people’s emotional commitment to this “why”. This may explain why so many change programs fail. It is easy to come up with a nice-sounding, positive reason why we need to change. But how many organizations spend the time and resources to “sell” this reason to their employees to win not only their rational acceptance, but also their emotional commitment to it? Needless to say, winning emotional commitment for something is extremely difficult. It is also something than will require us to use not only inspiring speeches and presentations, but also additional tactics and strategies. It is hard, but this is the only way to create the right kind of urgency in an organization.

Adopting the “right” attitude towards disruption is not something that only leaders need to do. The whole organization needs to accept this and act accordingly. The problem is that we are delivering the message that disruption is not only a threat, but also an opportunity for exhausted and frightened employees who are surrounded by the negative side effects of disruption. How can you convince people that something is “positive” when all they see around them is negative? This will require more than inspiring speeches and repeated calls to action. It is also inevitable that people will not be convinced overnight, so this is something that will require a lot of time and attention from the leaders of the organization. It is difficult, but it is also an absolute necessity. Actions flow from attitudes, and if we fail to get the whole organization to adopt the “right” attitude, our strategy of response will most likely fail, no matter how good it is.

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Constantinos C. Markides
Constantinos C. Markides is Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and holds the Robert P Bauman Chair in Strategic Leadership at London Business School. He is recognized as one of the world's foremost experts on strategy and innovation. An internationally acclaimed teacher and conference speaker, he is the author of seven books. A native of Cyprus, Professor Markides received his BA (Distinction) and MA in Economics from Boston University, and his MBA and DBA from Harvard Business School.

Books by Constantinos C. Markides:
Organizing for the New Normal: Prepare Your Company for the Journey of Continuous Disruption (Kogan Page; 1st edition; April 27, 2021).

Constantinos Markides is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn.