Insights for Thriving on Disruption

This post first appeared on IBM Business of Government. Read the original article.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

In our increasingly uncertain, complex, and transforming world,” says Roger Spitz, “the sooner we begin to embrace change and educate ourselves to take action, the better. Disruption is already transforming every aspect of our personal and professional lives and permeates every institution and sector of society. It’s not enough to be aware of the accelerating speed and scope of this change – we must prepare for it.”

Recently, Roger joined me on The Business of Government Hour ( or a very timely and insightful conversation on how best to thrive in disruption. Leaders and organizations have been walloped by the unforgiving realities of disruption and uncertainty. Our discussion and his Definitive Guide offer practical, actionable recommendations for navigating the constancy of uncertainty. The following is an edited excerpt from our conversation.

On Defining Systematic Disruption and its Evolution

There are a few elements to unpack when tackling systematic disruption and its evolution. There had been two notable descriptions of disruption. The economist Joseph Schumpeter popularized the term “creative destruction” to describe innovation that pushes countries through cycles of constant reinvention: through industrial evolution, new economic structures, and the destruction of old ways through the creation of new ones. This would be considered Disruption 1.0. Clayton Christensen describes “disruptive innovation”, which illustrates how an innovative product typically disrupts an old market by following a reliable process. This is Disruption 2.0.

Both concepts describe many of the disruptions we have seen over the past decades. Disruption, however, is no longer merely a single or recurring event, but a steady state, expanding its impact. In short, while disruption has always existed, it is now disrupting itself. In this iteration – Disruption 3.0 – we need to see it as omnipresent. It is a constant which establishes entirely new paradigms, which themselves will evolve. Current assumptions are becoming obsolete, and new questions must be raised. Systemic disruption needs to be assessed holistically, as it is expanding in nature, scope, and speed. We must stop thinking about disruption in terms of complexity, uncertainty, and unexpected events that simply happen to us. Instead, it’s time to start thinking about the opportunities for us to understand and embrace disruption – and its power that enables us to build a better future than we could have anticipated.

There’s an increasing cost relying on assumptions of business as usual — a rising cost of assuming that the world is predictable and that’s because there’s an inverse relationship between predictability and uncertainty. We need to think about constant evolution, multiple futures, and scenarios (what we call foresight in the futures field). It about looking at next order implications and the multiplicity of possibilities.

On the Constants and Drivers of Disruption

To truly comprehend disruption, we need to understand its fundamental drivers, and the forces, influences, and factors behind such radical change. One way to reduce the surprise and impact of disruption is to also examine the constants – what’s not changing. As we develop a deeper understanding, we begin to realize that disruption and constants – elements from the present that continue into the future – are closely related. Once we establish that disruption is a steady state, as opposed to isolated or single, recurring events, is there really a difference between disruptions and constants?

This perspective is informed by eastern philosophy. For example, in Japanese, mujō means impermanence: everything and everyone is constantly changing. It is the same concept of impermanence when the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that “…no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he’s not the same man.” So nothing is permanent but impermanence. This philosophical problem fleshes out a great paradox, as impermanence is permanent – while at the same time everything is in constant change – with the absence of continuity or permanence.  If you think of an onion and you’re trying to peel what’s disruptive, what’s certain, what’s uncertain, paradoxically, you can get a better handle on what to prepare for and anticipate.

We’ve identified five clusters of what we call the drivers of disruption. Each driver amplifies, magnifies, and impacts each other.

  1. New Change: This driver underscores the new nature, velocity, multiplicity, and interconnectivity of disruption. A key ingredient that stands out is velocity. The accelerating pace of change (powered by four laws Moore’s Law, Metcalfe’s Law, Law of Accelerating Returns) is now the norm. The rapid rate of change can continue to increase exponentially, as the rate of change itself mutates. The combinatory nature is self-reinforcing, and cumulative effects result in discontinuous change. These features together qualify as New Change.
  2. Hyper Premium on Relevancy: This driver is exemplified by the Red Queen Race from Louis Carroll the sister book to Alison Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, where the queen is speaking to Alice, says, “Well, my dear Alice, you’re lucky where I come from. It takes all the running or twice the running to stay in the same place.” Like it or not, there’s a hyper premium on being relevant. The bar to become and remain relevant is higher than ever. You need to run faster to stay in the same place. Even if you do, you could still end up behind.
  3. Irreversibility: This third driver states that the underlying disruption may be irreversible. Irreversibility means that decisions and outcomes are difficult or impossible to reverse. It is this irreversibility which means that however beneficial these developments might be (e.g. technology, AI), the risk is that these evolutions continue their journey and advance to such a degree that the potential impact on society is transformative but hard to reverse. Furthermore, the consequences of poor or delayed decisions and responses are high.
  4. Systemic Paradigm Shifts: The fourth driver represents the shift in systemic paradigms. A paradigm represents a particular perspective or ideology. As complexity is the norm, so is uncertainty. Complexity, society, and information are shaped by our systemic paradigm shifts. They force you to think and act differently. Paradigm shifts are fundamental changes in our approach and can be unstoppable.
  5. Rapidly Approaching New Eras: Fifth, we show drivers of disruption that arise from “Rapidly Approaching New Eras”. These disruption drivers bring an entirely new meaning to our lives and world order. The rapidly approaching new era is one where new frontiers take shape at the same time as geopolitical and global economic reshuffling. For example, reshoring, backshoring, and onshoring are now replacing offshoring and outsourcing. We also have the evolution of quantum and artificial life. What are the implications of quantum physics or discoveries? What if you can create inorganic life?

While drivers of disruption foster uncertainty and change, we should also identify those factors that remain constant and calibrate our lens on observing what are the “constants.” What may provide some predictability? Exploring new pathways is the only option in hyper-accelerating environments. With the awareness that some things will constantly emerge, while others may disappear or change at different rates.

On UN-VICE: New Language to Thrive in Disruption 

We are seeing advice from so-called experts is becoming less important, helpful, and correct. Some people prepare for disruption; others are surprised when it occurs. When we remember that disruption itself is neutral and acknowledge its massive impact, we can drive disruption ourselves, and harness its power to thrive instead of crumble. Rather than offering advice in approaching this new, disjointed world, we’d like to offer what we call UN-VICE.

Though it may seem like just another unnecessary acronym in a world rife with too many acronyms already, this one is an update to the most famous acronym to disruption: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), which is about 50 years old. We have developed a new framework and language to help us thrive in our unknown, volatile, intersecting, complex, and exponential world (UN-VICE). This is not a suggestion of behavior, nor a mandate from on high. Instead, it is a way to decipher the world and our changing circumstances, alongside frameworks and mental models. This is not to say that other advice should be ignored. But all advice should be carefully considered, with an emphasis on developing your own capabilities and trusting our powers.

The UN in UN-VICE is for unknown, which is a combination of uncertain and ambiguous. The V is for volatile given it gets harder to predict and anticipate what’s too come. I is for intersecting because today we find that boundaries are disappearing, and it’s the combinations that overlaps the convergence that creates change and opportunity. It’s the intersection of new fields that creates innovation. We recognize and respect that everything connects to everything else in an inherently complex work that is increasing marked by exponential change.

In our deeply uncertain and complex environment, there is often merit in having no preconceptions. New domains, fields, connections, and technologies are constantly emerging – even experts cannot connect all the dots. We are faced today with major novel challenges for which there may sometimes be no established experts due to unknowability (i.e. unknown unknowns). The deeper the uncertainties, the greater the divergences and contradictions of existing expert views. This is the case for the many new challenges and opportunities. This provides opportunities to become tomorrow’s innovators as we explore new solutions to resolve these issues. We should be curious and embrace the latest science, while appreciating the discoveries still needed and the limitations of our current knowledge.

On Frameworks and Tools for Thriving in Disruption 

We appreciate the limitations of traditional planning and standard playbooks or legacy. organizational models which are not adapted to our unpredictable world. We have developed our own frameworks and tools. Our AAA framework describes an approach for thriving in disruption starting with building Antifragile foundations, develop the capabilities to be Anticipatory, and use emergent and strategic Agility to bridge the short-term with long-term decision-making. Diving deeper antifragile foundations provide more upside from random events or shocks, and antifragility benefits from frequent and small errors that provide helpful lessons. Anticipatory refers to the capacity to prepare for systemic disruption and proactive steps to better prepare for and ultimately make more informed decisions in response to any futures which may materialize. Agility describes what is required for emergence in complex environments such as our ability to emerge in the “here and now” – when there may be no right answers to guide us. We also use our agility in reconciling different time horizons. Achieving this agility to emerge requires curiosity, creativity, and experimentation.

This framework builds on the tactical insights from our 6 i’s toolkit to drive and thrive on disruption: Intuition, Inspiration, Imagination, Improvisation, Invention, Impossible. If you have intuition and develop it, you avoid preconceptions. You trust yourself, you trust your judgment, which is helpful. If you’re inspired, you explore, you’re curious, you’re imaginative, you ask broad questions, you break from the present. If you’re prepared to improvise, you experiment, you make mistakes, but mistakes are gifts, you accept the ambiguity. If you think that nothing is predetermined, you invent your future, that’s the invention. When you have confidence to wander, to fail, and you may stumble into and achieve the impossible. Applying these frameworks and tools can help us to see the world of change in a way that’s not necessarily negative.

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