For those of us in the futurology business, the concept of disruption has long been a central organizing principle of how we look at the world, as well as the people and organizations that try to navigate it. And where better to assess how this is playing out but at the recently concluded World Economic Forum 2017 annual meeting in Davos.

In sessions on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, blockchain and machine learning, the theme of disruption was repeatedly driven home. Each time “the D word” was invoked, it was with relish and zeal; disruption – the unquestioned assumption amongst attendees – is a good thing. Don’t agree? Well, dear reader, dear audience member, you’re a Dodo, you’re a Luddite, you’re not with the program. You’re toast.

 

Concerns Regarding Shift to Digital

 

This semi-mystical belief in the power – and inherent goodness – of disruption has, over the last 30 years, seeped from the pages of technology journals into the zeitgeist of modern business. As software has increasingly eaten business, business has increasingly adopted tech-centric mantras. Now even the humblest widget manufacturer is attuned to the notion of being disruptive – or being disrupted.

But a funny thing has happened recently. A funny thing that was on full display along the snowy promenade in Davos last week: The disruption we’ve practiced and preached has itself been disrupted. Disruption has taken a new shape, a new form factor, a new guise. Disruption has a new name.

No prizes for guessing who I’m talking about.

Now, Davos man and woman – the archetypal proselytizers of disruption – are being disrupted. And guess what? They don’t like it.

Disrupting is great fun. Being disrupted is absolutely horrible.

Expecting the Unexpected

An unintended consequence of the ever broadening accommodation with disruption over the last generation or two has been the emergence of a new complacency. Having read every book about tech-based market disruption, we’ve thought that a rose is a rose is a rose. With our tech-centric hammer in hand, every problem has become a tech-centric nail to bash home.

But that’s the great (or awful) thing about disruption (depending on where you stand and what the view looks like); real disruption is always new. Always different. Always unexpected. Unforecastable.

To paraphrase (and mangle) one of the high priests of disruption, Clayton Christensen, there are two types of disruption: sustaining disruption and disruptive disruption. Davos (wo)man  has been operating within a framework of sustaining disruption these last few decades. (That includes you, even if you weren’t actually in Switzerland – in the large businesses within which the majority of us work, we are all “Spartacus.”) Though Instagram disrupted Kodak, and Netflix disrupted Blockbuster, these disruptions occurred within well understood market rules. As we move further into the first 100 days of the new U.S. president’s administration, we don’t really know the rules of the game anymore. Or even what game we’re playing.

Real disruption is always lurking on the edge of the radar; always there. Someone on your team has told you this is coming. Someone has said, quietly from the back of the room, we better take this seriously. Surprises only happen when you’re not paying attention. And when you simply don’t want that type of disruption to occur.

Learning from Disruption

So what can we take away from Davos 2017? What can we learn from this uncomfortable period in which so many of the orthodoxies that have underpinned standard operating procedure are being challenged and, perhaps, overturned?

I think two things:

  • First, disruption is an ever-morphing thing that, if you think you’ve got it nailed down, is probably going to slip away and fool you just when you think you’re home and dry. The unknown unknowns really are unknown.
  • Second, even as we go about our daily work of evangelizing blockchain, virtual reality, quantum computing, machine learning and fog computing, there are companies and people who are going to end up  on the wrong side of disruption and whose futures do not appear to be bright – whose better days are behind them … who will not write the history of their great adventure … who will not be the heroes of their story … who will be the proverbial third spear carrier from the left when Hollywood comes to town.

Knowing that the people to whom we’re presenting, who are reading our reports, who we’re consulting to, may be months (or minutes) away from losing their place on the totem pole should give us all a sense of humility and humbleness, as we tell our tale of disruption and hand down our commandments from on high. There but for the grace of God go I.

Davos 2017 was a community trying to come to terms with the disruption ahead. Anxious at best, fearful at worst, that those who live by disruption die by disruption.

 

Ben Pring

Ben Pring

Ben Pring leads Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work and is a co-author of the forthcoming book What To Do When... Read more