• Aarron Spinley

Great boards overcome barriers to self-disruption

Disruption is no longer a risk in today’s experience economy – it is a certainty. The benchmark for successful experiences is continually raised, as consumers encounter and grow inurned to new and improved experiences in every aspect of their lives. Inadvertently, businesses are expected to match the customer experience leaders in every market, and not just with their traditional competitors.

And as I often say in many of my talks, we the consumers, have lost our minds. We’ve become tantrum-throwing, demanding, self-centred, and impatient. It’s a tough gig for brand owners these days.

The linchpin has undoubtedly been Digital Darwinism. The 2010’s have been an era where technology and society has evolved faster than businesses could adapt. But how does one reconcile with this in a world of continuous disclosures and shareholder relations?

New entrants in all manner of markets - not constrained by outmoded “systems of business” or dated thinking - have outmaneuvered far more established players. Their risk profile is entirely different. They are hyper-focused on the customer and the experiences they can craft for them. 

Never before in history did nascent startups possess the capability to take on long-entrenched incumbents with such ease. In the last 5 years alone we have seen over 300 unicorns announce themselves to the world. 

If that wasn’t enough, technologies we thought we understood have re-emerged to shape whole new markets in unexpected ways. Just think about it: The GPS was never envisioned for the ride-hailing industry, and machine learning was certainly not invented to facilitate the creation of playlists for streaming music services. 

Unsurprisingly, this fast-paced world presents a conundrum to board members appointed for their prior experiences and acumen. When keeping to the status quo is no longer an option, they must deliberately steer their organisations to greater heights by trodding on less-tested paths. The good news is, the ability to disrupt is not something limited to startups.

Appetite for disruption

Overcoming the reluctance towards self-disruption is never easy. Organisations with a hitherto winning formula can find it next to impossible to deviate from the old “if it ain’t broke” approach. Compounding matters is the bias toward ultra-conservatism in the post GFC world, as corporate management guards against the lessons of that time.

It’s perhaps not fair to characterise this as over-steering, but the pace of markets today requires the machinery of decision making to move faster than it has before - so new forms of risk management are required to balance risk and reward in the experience economy.

It is predictable that the majority of corporates will pontificate, and that many of them will pay for it in declining market cap, reduced share, and for some: oblivion. History tells us so. But for those that can calibrate, the opportunity to lead in their category has perhaps never been greater. 

The boardroom should be a hive of debate right now. 

Gartner has predicted that by next year (2020 for posterity sake), five of the top seven digital giants will be deliberately self-disrupting to create their next leadership opportunity. These are forward-thinking organisations that see the possibility of significant disruption and being proactive by deciding to embrace the disruption, even if it cannibalises some existing advantage before someone else does.

This isn’t as dramatic as you think. The opportunities for self-disruption - and the potential

upside - are enormous. 

In the study of futures, we learn that in order to envision a “preferred future”, we must first be able to break out of the current paradigm - the inherent constraints within our thinking. The teachings on this are confronting - and liberating - but most organisations are never able to do it. This is why most corporate strategy that we see today is largely confined to simple iterations of the status quo.  

True strategy making requires unprecedented levels of vulnerability, which is the platform for growth. It seems counter-intuitive, but then so it is that servanthood is the basis of leadership, and humility the foundation of greatness. Yet these truths stand through the generations.


Now in the age of Digital Darwinism, we live in perhaps the most challenging of times for company boards - yet opportunity abounds for boards that can humbly pay their respects to ways of the past, carry with them the wisdom of those learnings, and yet boldly explore new ways of value creation. 

We need to update the tools of the trade. In the experience economy, consumerisation is manifest in every sector, even in the halls of government and the most conservative tranches of manufacturing. To succeed in driving toward a new strategy in this era, a board can manage its risk by ensuring access to timely and contextual insights about the experience of their customers and their employees. This informs its capacity to achieve target behaviours, or to know when the market is moving on, to select controls, pivot at strategy or product level, or to make new bets. 

In today’s economy, a board without this instrumentation is running blind. In that context, fear is the only logical reaction. And fear paralyses. 

I was asked once if there are organisations that are too big, or too large, or to institutionalised to change. I was blunt in my response. “Everyone is too big to change, until they’re not”. I believe this. “Change or Die!” - as the Papa Roach song proclaims.

Of course, that’s easy to say. I get it. Everyone likes talking about disruption but no one likes to be disrupted. Disruption is uncomfortable, it’s messy. Disruption is emotional, and it’s almost always political. Yuck.

But it’s all of these things and much much worse, when it’s someone else who is disrupting you. Better to rip the bandaid off yourself. Control the burn. Control the narrative. Always better to lead than to react.

But for goodness sake, don’t do it blindly. Get the tools. 

Summing up

One of the driving factors to overcoming barriers to self-disruption, is understanding the inherent risks of not changing. Just as today does not look like yesterday, tomorrow will not look like today. 

To embrace that reality takes leadership, and a willingness to accept that evolution is necessary. We live in a time of opportunity that previous boards could only have dreamed about. Grasping that, must surely be a defining hallmark of today’s great boards.

I am always greatly encouraged when company directors come to hear me speak, or ask for boardroom briefings. Becoming educated about the experience economy is the first step to conquering it. I always tell them that there are 3 key principles that every board needs to adopt as it pursues positive self-disruption:

Be humble - let yesterday go

Invest in the right instrumentation - this is not a guessing game

Lead with excitement - the opportunity is far, far greater than the risk

What a time to be alive.

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