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If you are to believe the talk, everyone else is doing it. Everyone that is, except you. Just like teenage sex. Everyone talks the talk, particularly amongst young hormonal boys to whom this particular rite of passage seems to be core to their very self-definition at 16/17! They talk about how they are doing it, when and where. But of course most, if not all, of the talk is just projected desire and hopeful wishing. They, just like you, remained terrified and excited in equal measures by the opposite sex, yet to have any actual experience. All they have is their story-telling. At least that is how I remember it!

I think today, digital and industry disruption follows similar patterns. If we are to believe the hype, every company and industry is resourcing for disruption, bending rules, breaking moulds and challenging norms. Every conference you go to has thought-leaders telling you that unless you are disrupting norms then your business will not survive. Every successful start-up in your industry seems to move with speed and flexibility that makes you dizzy. Your Twitter feed lists innovative strategy after creative adaption. It seems everyone is at it. Except your company.

To me Disruption is about being ready for it. Ready for the changes it brings and your capability to survive those changes. Preparing for those changes is difficult – that’s why they call it DISRUPTION and not GENERALLY PREDICTIVE CHANGE.

Sometimes you see the trend coming, but others times the step-jump can catch you unawares. There is no shame in being caught by surprise, but there is when you just stand there with your mouth open and your pants down (back to the teenage sex!).

I am often asked for my tips on surviving disruption or how to best prepare for it after delivering a keynote on the subject. And so here I offer my favourite two answers – SPEED and the PIVOT.

If Everything is Under Control, You’re Not Going Fast Enough

Speed – this should be obvious. Today’s economy and pace of change runs at a speed your grand-parents would have found sickening. When I studied Strategic Management at University we were taught about Short, Medium and Long-Term planning. That last one was about 6-10 year planning. Who makes 10 year plans in business today? I doubt Nokia’s 10-year business plan in 2006 read “Fade Away into Insignificance”?

Sometimes the speed at which you do something defines your success. Too much planning, debating, strategizing and future-proofing can paralyse action. Reacting to what is happening is key and not doing so is one of the critical failures many organisations make, even as things are clearly imploding around them. I am always reminded of that famous Monty Python scene in The Life of Brian (go on, click on it – it is always worth watching again …)


How you react to the change or an issue will define your success. The companies that will survive in this new reality have built reaction into their organisational DNA. Recently I was listening to a Prince EA verse and he has a great line which I will borrow here.

Sometimes you have to grow your wings on the way down.

While delivered as a motivational/personal message, the moment I heard it I knew I would be sharing it with all my clients, as it captures perfectly the need to stay ahead and react quickly. You do not have the luxury today to plan every detail before you ‘jump’. You just need to get going and adjust on the way.

Stay in Control

Now sometimes people mix up SPEED and HASTE. There is a difference, haste being a bit more uncontrolled and chaotic. I am not suggesting you run your business implementing decisions quickly without due diligence. Speed is nothing without control. Ask any Formula 1 driver. In fact if you want a lesson in SPEED and EFFICIENCY look at the Ferrari team setting the 1.9 second pit-stop below. That doesn’t happen by accident. Every resource has a precise role, and working together they become what can only be described as a human machine. What we are striving for is strategic speed.


The Pivot: Learn to Change Direction

The second aspect to surviving disruption is the PIVOT. Being able to alter the direction of the business efficiently and effectively. This I think is the real key. I remember the first (and only!) time I saw a live game of basketball. I was amazed at the speed the play swapped from end-to-end of the court, each team changing the pace and direction of play in a blink of an eye.

In basketball there is a simple play called a PIVOT (stay with me here as I am no pro when it comes to basketball, but even hard-core fans should accept the metaphor). A player can dribble the ball and once they stop, it is illegal to dribble (move forward) again. However they can pivot – spinning on their lead foot in any direction to release the ball. That gives you a 360-degree field of play. And if they are really clever, when they come off the dribble they can come to a jump-stop on to both of their feet, enabling them to pivot on either foot. While I would love the idea of you all going bouncing basketballs around your offices tomorrow, it is the metaphor that is important here (but by all means dunk a ball in the waste paper basket of your boss from the corridor and see what happens…)

Organisations need to move forward to survive. That much is obvious. Standing still and your competitor will eventually move in for the kill. Standing still and growing taller used to be a strategy that worked in the past, but not anymore. No longer does sheer size and market share guarantee you anything. In fact today that old-school complacence is often enemy number one. So moving forward it is.

You Are Going to be Disrupted

As you ’dribble’ up the court, look at each bounce of that ball as another month of doing what your business does best. R&D, innovation, customer experience, branding. Whatever the core of the business is, whatever day-to-day is delivering the profit. Now, no matter how good you are doing that, no matter how mastered you are at ‘dribbling’ that ball, eventually circumstances are going to change. Your flow is going to be disrupted. And here is where this metaphor is perfect. Choosing what you do at the point of disruption decides you fate.

You can come to a sudden standstill, reeling as your competitor slaps the ball from your hands and takes what was yours. Or you can pivot. Faced with a disruption obstacle, changing the direction of play is imperative. Being flexible, adaptive and courageous enough to change the direction of your business is what defines those organisations that will survive disruption. And doing it with certainty, commitment and agility.

The problem with this is that most organisations have neither the culture nor resources to pivot. They are like an oil tanker. Great at moving forward slowly, in waters they know well, but not great at the sharp turn. So what to do? Well firstly don’t captain an oil tanker. Break the ship into smaller boats that CAN pivot. Stimulate a culture of risk and failure as well as planning and success. Both are important.

I also like the PIVOT metaphor for another reason. You are keeping one foot on the floor, in exactly the place you stopped. That’s the rule. I’m not suggesting you stop doing what you are good at. That foot on the floor is what you do well, what has got you to where you are, your connection to the customer. You just need to leverage those skills in a new way. So leave that foot where it is, rooted in experience, but pivot the resources in a new direction. That is how to best prepare for disruption.

So Why Are They All Talking About It?

So even though disruption is all around us, and everyone is talking about it, it still remains elusive to many organisations. They acknowledge the need to prepare for disruption without actually doing anything about it.

It is like being an 18-year old boy and going to your freshman college party full of talk about the sex you’re going to have, but not bringing any condoms. If you are serious about disruption you’d actually be prepared for it, as opposed to just talking about it (unless like me at 17, you always had one in your wallet but eventually had to throw it out, as it went out of date … but that’s a whole other story …)

So learn to pivot and react quickly. And tomorrow leave a basketball and a condom on the boardroom table. If nothing else it will make for interesting water-cooler conversations …




Ken Hughes is one of the worlds leading Shopper and Consumer Behaviouralists, blending his vast expertise in consumer psychology, social & digital anthropology, behavioural economics and neuromarketing to answer the question to which he has dedicated most of his career: Why do shoppers buy and how can we make them buy more? Click here to read more

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