Work With Disruptors—Without Being Disrupted

Whether among your membership, your staff, or your board, disruptors want to shake things up. Being flexible while carving a space for them to disrupt could be just the trick to keeping everyone on the same page.

Associations know a thing or two about “squeaky wheels”: that person who offers a whole lot of critiques, but not necessarily feedback that can benefit every member.

Those disruptors may be members. They may be on your board. They may even be in your C-suite.

These agents of change want to be heard, and they often have ideas worth listening to. But without a way to harness the energy that disruptors bring to the table, associations risk being, well, disrupted—and not in the way that brings effective change for everyone. Developing the right channels for disruptors to voice their concerns can help make sure that these change-makers bring in a fresh flow of ideas, without upsetting the balance that’s working for most stakeholders. A few insights worth considering:

Consider whether the old way of doing things is holding you back.

Here’s an important question to start with: Could you benefit from a little disruption? The success of disruptive startups like Mailjoy, which helps automate the distribution of postcards, make it look easy. But what about more established organizations?

Your current operations might seem effective, but you might be working within limitations that you’d be well-served to rip up in order to reach new heights. That lone voice on the board might be onto something, but you won’t know whether that’s the case unless you genuinely investigate that path.

A great example is the plight that mobile provider T-Mobile faced about a decade ago, at a point when the company was a bit of an also-ran on the market. The company brought in CEO John Legere, who implemented a series of bold moves that ignored the orthodoxy of the mobile industry at the time—most notably, dropping strict contracts and offering unlimited data at a time its competitors were not.

That led the company to become competitive with larger providers, such as Verizon and AT&T. After a merger with Sprint that Legere presided over, T-Mobile is now the second-largest mobile provider in the U.S., outpacing AT&T.

Ensure your staff is well-positioned to handle change.

Part of the reason association leaders might dismiss squeaky wheels out of hand is anxiety around taking on a disruptive idea.

One question to ask is whether resistance to a concept is a result of the ideas being a poor match, or if general discomfort with change is to blame. Australian consultant Omer Soker has noted that many organizations lean toward the latter.

“People need to understand that when you’re taking on innovation, risk is a big part of it, and that’s quite alien to people who haven’t innovated before,” Soker told Associations Now in 2017. “‘If I fail, will I be punished?’ You have to get across the idea that risk is OK. We’re expecting people to make some mistakes.”

The idea may or may not be a fit. But an organization that can adapt is much more likely to implement change for the right reasons.

Right-size the disruption.

Finding appropriate venues for disruption can take different forms. Mark Dorsey, FASAE, CAE, CEO of the Construction Specifications Institute, noted earlier this year that building user groups for high-end “super users” can create a channel for organizations to hear direct feedback from disruptive voices.

He also recommends looking for opportunities to frame disruptive discussions in terms of problem solving.

“A lot of groups … often jump right to the conclusion. I state a problem, ‘Oh, I’ve got a solution,’ and then you start debating. That debate becomes personal really fast,” he said in a September interview. “Instead, spend most of your time framing the question, really understanding the problem you’re trying to solve.”

Give the disruptor a sense of ownership … even if it’s small.

Disruptors may have a brash personality that can dominate broader discussions, which can feel overwhelming in some contexts.

Perhaps the most important way to make them feel like they are being heard and having an impact is to give them the space to move. A Fast Company piece recommends offering dominant personalities room for independent problem-solving, so a little delegation could go a long way.

“Before delegating to a dominant personality, make sure the areas of authority are clearly defined and articulated,” executive coach Melody Wilding wrote on the site. “Focus them on bold, ambitious long-term goals to keep them consistently aiming higher.”

You may not want your would-be disruptors to change everything, but letting them change something could help your organization find areas of improvement while minimizing risks.

(phive2015/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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