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say it with moxy

Appetite for Disruption

Where to begin?

In early 2020 I was asked by a local Minneapolis based software company if I could give a keynote address at their annual developer’s conference. I was intrigued by the offer because they wanted me to talk about disruption in a world that was full of it. My book “Disrupting Data Governance” was published just four months before Covid became a word in our lexicon and never did I imagine that disruption would become such an integral part of our everyday. I had studied disruption for that book and decided it got a bad name. But alas I was focused on data governance not the nature of disruption so until that request in early 2020 I had no real reason to research it.

To explain how I got to these ideas about disruption I have to share a personal story that if I’m being honest does not paint me in the kindest light. In early 2018 I was bored and boredom for me is a dangerous state. My day to day had evolved to a series of maintenance tasks. The same meetings week after week, status updates and casual one on one meetings. It is the standard for most middle managers in corporate America. But the routine had dulled my senses, I felt held back, limited, and anxious. I needed a new challenge. If I had the language that I have now I would have channeled this moment into something positive and had a proactive conversation with my leader about my feelings. Instead, I started poking around where I didn’t belong. I instigated an organizational change that rather than fulfilling my expectations of providing a new challenge put me in a position of reporting to someone who had no idea what I did. It was the opposite of what I wanted and quite honestly for where I was in my career at that point a slap in the face. One that I deserved for all the instigating I was doing but nonetheless painful. I quit that job, which was probably what I should have done when I realized I needed a challenge, but the trouble is, I wanted to continue to support the organization. I wanted to be a part of their future.

As I reflected on that situation, I realized it was a repeating pattern for me. And just like a teenager in the middle of a bad break-up I insisted it was all their fault and none of mine. But the reality was the only thing consistent about all these bad break-ups was me. I instigated, I poked, prodded, and needled my way into a corner and while I was full of good intentions I just came off as ungrateful and disrespectful.

This was top of mind when I started thinking about disruption. Although I was embarrassed about how I acted in many of these cases I was proud of the work I had done up to the point where I got bored. Despite several attempts to explain my behavior (therapy, reading, personality assessments) nothing ever resonated with me enough to explain why I loved blowing shit up. I destroyed relationships that were important to me, I threw the baby out with the bathwater all because I reached a point where my need to disrupt overwhelmed my want to play nice.

Who are you?

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m proud of my disruptor mentality. I tend to think differently than a lot of people. It is what makes me a great consultant and a terrible employee. Over the years I have been hired by companies to build something that doesn’t exist and for that work disruption is a natural, powerful tool. But when I’m done building and it’s time to manage it, well, that’s when things get boring for me and terrifying for everyone else.

So, in 2020 when I was asked to give that talk about how organizations can innovate in times of chaos and churn (you know, modern times) while not burning people out I finally sat down and documented my theory about disruptive profiles.

Disrupter | Optimizer | Keeper

Balance is the key to lots of things and that’s true for disruption. The reason I make a terrible employee is because I have a difficult time being satisfied when something is well-established and ready to manage. I crave the chaos of blowing stuff up. Thankfully, there are other types of people too, Optimizers and Keepers.

All organizations need someone who can thoughtfully disrupt, the real trick is how much. You can probably spot the Disrupters. When I posted a very unscientific poll on LinkedIn about the people that disrupted several people were able to articulate at least one person in their life that naturally, without question, (and sometimes to their own detriment) disrupted.

Optimizers take what’s already there and keep improving it. They tweak it until it runs smoothly. They tend to think a lot like Disrupters with one caveat -- they don’t always like to blow stuff up and start from scratch. They’d rather see what they can make out of what exists.

Keepers are called that because they excel at keeping the lights on, the doors open and the paychecks coming. Keepers are essential to an organization’s ability to sustain itself. Without Optimizers and keepers no organization can innovate well. Yet, Disrupters like me get all the attention during times of big change. There would be no Walt Disney Companies without Roy. There would be no Apple without Woz. What I’m saying is Disrupters need others to help make their crazy ideas a reality.

So What?!

It seems that every organization wants to take advantage of disruption. To be sure, most organizations do this poorly, or can’t do it at all. The natural inclination when shit gets crazy is to buckle down and stay the course. While there are many books out there that talk about innovating or disrupting, I think we’ve missed the mark completely. Stop looking outside your organization for some methodology and look inside your organization at the people that are already there, dedicated to the mission and ready to take on new challenges.

Consider your team, and what your organization is asking you to accomplish. What mix of Disrupters, Optimizers and Keepers do you have on your team? I bet you can name those Disrupters almost immediately, and the Keepers too. Too many Disrupters and chaos reigns supreme. Too many Keepers and you will fail to keep pace with the modern world. Nothing but Optimizers and you’ll forever be fiddling with things and never getting to steady state (particularly challenging in a product mindset).

When your organization tasks you with finding new and creative ways to deliver business value, but you have no one on your team that thinks that way, asking a Keeper (for example) to push their boundaries of comfort is the kind of stuff that leads to burnout. Asking a Disruptor to sit still and manage something will probably lead to them leaving (but not before they cause a little drama).

Some roles are a natural fit for their type, I don’t know a lot of Disruptor CFOs for example (there are a few, they find the right organizations), and don’t ask a Keeper to lead a start-up in a volatile industry like cryptocurrency, for (I hope what now are) obvious reasons.

Obviously, this is not a perfect science, it’s not a science at all. Most people are too nuanced to be put squarely in boxes their whole lives, and some are capable of impressive feats of adaptation. But, if you find yourself wondering why your team is struggling to gain traction, despite having great, smart people, maybe you don’t have the right balance of Disrupters, Optimizers and Keepers.


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