May 26 2011

You Have to Throw a Stone to Get the Pond to Ripple

You Have to Throw a Stone to Get the Pond to Ripple

This is a post about productive disruption.  The title comes from one of my favorite lines from a song by Squeeze, Slap & Tickle.  But the concept is an important one for leaders at all levels, especially as businesses mature.

Founders and CEOs of early stage companies don’t disrupt the flow of the business.  Most of the time, they ARE the flow of the business.  They dominate the way everything works by definition — product development, major prospect calls, client dialog, strategy, and changes in strategy.  But as businesses get out of the startup phase and into the “growth” phase (I’m still trying to figure out what to call the phase Return Path is in right now), the founders and CEO should become less dominant.  The best way to scale a business is by not being Command Central any longer – to build an organization capable of running without you in many cases.

Organizations that get larger seek stability, and to some extent, they thrive on it.  The kinds of people you hire into a larger company aren’t accustomed to or prepared for the radical swings you get in startups.  And the business itself has needs specifically around a lack of change.  Core systems have to work flawlessly.  Changes to those systems have to go off without a hitch.  Clients need to be served and prospects need to be sold on existing products.  The world needs to understand your company’s positioning and value proposition clearly — and that can’t be the case if it’s changing all of the time.  Of course innovation is required, both within the core and outside of it, but the tensions there can be balanced out with the strengths of having a stable and profitable core (see my colleague George Bilbrey’s guest post on OnlyOnce a couple months back for more discussion on this point).

Despite all of this required stability, I think the art of being a leader in a growth organization is knowing when and how to throw that stone and get the pond to ripple — that is, when to be not just disruptive, but productively disruptive.

If done the right way, disruption from the top can be incredibly helpful and energizing to a company.  If done the wrong way, it can be distracting and demotivating.  I’ve been in environments where the latter is true, and it’s not fun.  I think the trick is to figure out how to blaze a new trail without torching what’s in place, which means forcing yourself to exercise a lot of judgment about who you disrupt, and when, and how (specifically, how you communicate what it is you’re doing and saying — see this recent post entitled “Try It On For Size” for a series of related thoughts).

Here are a few ideas for things that I’d consider productive disruption.  We’ve done some or shades of some of them at Return Path over the years.

  • Challenge everyone in the organization or everyone on your team to make a “stop doing” list, which forces people to critically evaluate all their ordinary processes and tasks and meetings and understand which ones are outdated, and therefore a waste of time
  • With the knowledge and buy-in of the group head, kick off an offsite meeting for a team other than the executive team by presenting them with your vision for the company three years down the road and ask them to come back to you in a week with four ideas of how they can help achieve that vision over time
  • If you see something going on in the organization that rubs you the wrong way, stop it and challenge it.  Do it politely (e.g., pull key people aside if need be), but ask why it’s going on, how it relates to the company’s mission or values as the case may be.  It’s ok to put people on the defensive periodically, as long as you’re asking them questions more than advocating your own position

I’m not saying we have it all figured out.  I have no doubt that my disruption is a major annoyance sometimes to people in the organization, and especially to people to report to me.  And I’ll try to perfect the art of being productive in my disruption.  But I won’t stop doing it — I believe it’s one of the engines of forward progress in the organization.