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Harnessing disruption: Turning uncertainty into possibility

Disruption is both a source of unease and an invitation for growth.

Harnessing disruption: Turning uncertainty into possibility
[Source images: BrianAJackson/Envato Elements; Prostock-studio/Envato Elements]
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The funny thing about disruption is that in business and in life, we only see it as a bad thing when we’re the ones being disrupted.

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Disruption and change are often conflated, but they’re not the same. Change is a big tent that houses everything from gentle, progressive, foreseen, and even invited, low-stakes adjustments on one side to rapid, aggressive, unforeseen, and high-stakes transformations on the other. As the pace of change accelerates and the stakes rise, you hit a certain tipping point where you encounter unnerving levels of uncertainty and, often, anxiety. Hello, disruption.

Why do we care? Because while most of us aren’t great at gradual change, we’re horribly equipped to handle the psychological and emotional demands of disruption, even when we’re the ones causing it. The minute the pace picks up and the stakes rise, the potential for failure, judgment, and loss of status, money, power, prestige, peace, and security rises, too. Along with that comes the potential for individual, cultural, and organizational struggle or even collapse.

Keats described this “negative capability” as the space that holds both the risk of loss and the possibility of growth. It’s experienced differently by disruptors and disruptees, though neither is immune to demise.

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When we’re the ones being disrupted and we’re watching the ground beneath our feet turn quickly to sand or even quicksand, the fear center in our brains kicks in. It delivers us into varying levels of anxiety, spin, haste, or paralysis while simultaneously stifling cognitive and creative capacity at a time when we need more than ever to be at our best. This response has nothing to do with intelligence; it is a primal reaction that can be triggered in any person (and any position) in any organization. When it happens, the impact can be devastating. We have all seen this and, likely, been a part of it.

Interestingly, when we’re the disruptors, the ones stepping on the gas and choosing the walls to crash through, we’re not immune to a similar experience, though it is qualitatively different. It’s still scary, but along with increasing pace and stakes, we have a sense of agency and a powerful connection to a reason. We don’t know how it will end or if we’ll be able to do what we set out to do, but at least we’ve chosen the direction, and we’re heading toward our ultimate destination. This doesn’t eliminate the psychological toll, but it centers us enough to maintain a sense of control, breathe more easily, and think more clearly. Every innovation-driven leader, founding team, and mission-driven startup knows this feeling.

Why do we care about any of this?

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Disruption is the gateway to innovation. Innovation is the lifeblood of growth. And growth is the closest we can come to immunizing ourselves and our organizations against death.

THERE IS NO SIDEWAYS. IF WE’RE NOT GROWING, WE’RE SLOWING. 

We don’t want a working world without disruption because that is a world of stagnation and retraction—not just of profit, but of possibility and impact. Rather than wish it away, the better move is to train for it and then invite it in, or at least be ready when it walks in the door—because it always will.

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If we can find a way to embrace disruption with greater equanimity, we not only make our lives easier, but we also make our leaders more capable, our cultures more responsive, and our organizations more agile.

While there are many tools and shifts to explore in the name of this training, it turns out that there are also simple things we can do on an individual level to reclaim the ground under our feet in the face of high-stakes, fast-moving change.

Here is a three-tool starter kit to add to your “harnessing disruption” toolbox:

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REFRAME

You cannot have disruption without possibility. If you’re not seeing the possibility side of the story, it’s usually because you’re the one being disrupted. Ask, “What is the possibility story?” It’s always there. Actively search for it. Identify the version that feels accessible and achievable. Find it like your organization’s life depends on it because often, it does. Then map the steps to pivot into it. And keep telling that story at every step along the way.

CHUNK STAKES

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Change the psychology of the experience by breaking big, scary undertakings into micro-actions with digestible stakes. Chunking not just the actions but also the stakes can help the whole process seem easier and lower anxiety. This can put you back in a generative, growth-oriented mindset.

TRAIN YOUR BRAIN

Cultivate immediate and long-term mindset practices. Simple breathing exercises can help keep you in the present moment. Mindfulness practice allows you to lead from a less reactive, more responsive and intentional place. Here’s the technique I recommend: Place one hand over your heart and the other over your belly. Inhale into your top hand, and finish into your bottom hand over a five-second count. Pause. Exhale from your bottom hand and slowly through your top for five seconds. Pause. Repeat three times. This blends the immediate downregulation of the nervous system that comes from slowed breathing with the mindful focus on your hands that stops you from spinning about the future or fretting about the past.

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Look at disruption as both a source of unease and an invitation for growth. It is something that is largely unavoidable — it’s always just a matter of time. Invest in equipping yourself and those around you with the tools, skills, and strategies needed to transform the experience of disruption from a source of pain into fuel for gain.


Jonathan Fields is the founder/CEO of Spark Endeavors | Host of Good Life Project® podcast | Author/Speaker (jonathanfields.com/speak) | Discover your Sparketype®