Disruptive Change Making - Examples and Case Studies


In his series on change, Max challenges dogma in organizational change methods; showing why they fail and presenting an alternative, more sustainable approach to change which focuses on the interpersonal aspects of change. In his previous articles, Max explains the concept of resilience, and why it is needed more than ever in the 21st century, and looks into why it is so difficult to invite change, particularly why knowledge without embodiment changes very little.  The third part of the series (happiness at work; the false profit) he focussed why it is necessary to embrace pain (or at least acknowledge that happiness all the time is not realistic) and the theory behind disruptive change making.  In this article he will give examples of actions intended to create those moments of reflection.

Everyone is talking innovation, collaboration, intra/entrepreneurialism, agility, decentralisation of power, digitalisation, the VUCA world, but all to few realize the sort of changes we will have to make to achieve it.

And what is it, organizations want to achieve by innovation, collaboration, and agility etc? To me, this talk is a symptom of a wider desire of f organizations to become ‘resilient’ - being able  to stay the course, develop and expand in the face of massive and unrelenting change in society. In simple terms, let us define a resilient business as an organisation that is able to continuously evolve with the market and social environment; thereby experiencing sustainability and success.  

For any organization to become resilient, it needs resilient employees - or people, as I tend to label us. Becoming resilient is difficult, but we are all capable of it, when we invite change at a human level as a opposed to merely on a technological level.

Resilient people

Resilient people know that there are endless problems in life, endless chances to feel overwhelmed, underappreciated and any other uncomfortable emotion, but they don’t care, because they know it’s a part of life: all things come to pass.  They do not exist in a state of fear or delusion about why they’re not happy all the time, what they should be in comparison to others, and how they should have no problems in order to be happy. This isn't about some mythical heroic state of being where everything is easy.  No, there is always suffering, but a resilient person accepts this, perhaps even welcomes it, and moves through it. They know that there is no ‘up’ without the ‘down’.

I believe that all people are capable of living in an existential state of resilience. They may have forgotten it, or chosen strategies and tactics that prevent them from this way of life.

If this belief is valid, then how can you invite yourself and others to tip toe towards resilience?

An approach to reslience

My approach is based around creating disturbance in order to destabilize habits and comfort zones: the enemies of change (as I see it). Outside of habits and comfort zones is fertile ground, but there may also be fear and suffering. There can be no guarantees that stepping into fertile ground will yield resilience, but it’s more likely to get results than doing nothing.  The trick is to stretch the comfort zone, by inviting reflection and growth, in small steps.

So how exactly can this be done? The answer is in infinite ways, and by the way there is no recipe book.  Any words or actions that are unusual or feel a bit edgy, are probably useful in this process. Why? Because by definition they are stretching out of normal habitual behaviours and patterns designed to avoid discomfort.

For example, If I’m feeling bored or frustrated in a meeting, perhaps irritated by the lack of progress and endless repetition of the word: “errrrrrrrrr” from a colleague, rather than sitting there festering in my anger, I could simply interrupt and say: “guys, I’m feeling a little frustrated: I have the judgement that we’re not really going anywhere, what do you need to move forward?”.  This is fairly obvious in hindsight, but how often have you seen someone do that?

What happened at this moment?  The normal, habit driven boredom of life was disrupted.  People were suddenly faced with an unusual moment… they had to think how to act: they become conscious and probably felt weird, if not uncomfortable.  Some might have found it amusing and joyful. At least they had the chance to reflect, and perhaps act.

This style change making is then simply about disrupting normal things at an emotional level, and opening the people to something different.  Of course there must be empathy and good intent as well. Without these, the risk is just to be disruptive for the sake of being disruptive. What is the intent?  to invite reflection and presence? What is the empathy, to know that people may be uncomfortable, afraid, angry, and to be kind, listen and provide safety as best as you can.

I believe disruptive change making can be viewed at two scales: the individual or small group level, and the mass or crowd level.

Examples of disruptive change making at individual and small group level:

  • Simple, honest human expression during meetings or in one to one discussions.  Reconnecting to what makes us humans a not simple accepting a simplified ‘work’ version of each other

  • Starting meetings with a 1 minute silence  

  • ‘big talk’, that is, let’s get to meaningful conversation as opposed to ritualistic ‘small talk’ (see www.makebigtalk.com as an example)

  • wearing a t-shirt with a philosophical quote to work, when everyone else is wearing ties

  • Inviting your team to play some Authentic Relating games or attending a cirlcing night.

Example of disruptive change making at larger group level:

  • Movement building through online communities and online/offline events and meetups.  Communities that mix individual gain and organisational gain can have a huge impact to engagement.

  • Grassroots awareness campaigns and co-creation about purpose, vision and future environment of the organization, including values, behaviours and practices?
    Visual campaigns using posters, stickers, graffiti (see examples in appendix)
    Thought provoking posts on social media (internal and public) followed by rich discussion; demonstrating adult relational practices through the discussion (public and private)

  • Open letters to management at all levels of the business; including where possible supporters from all levels of the existing hierarchy

  • Petitions to senior management signed by many colleagues

  • Peaceful mass gatherings of people to show solidarity and the desire for change

  • Developing unity amongst the people; focussing on our similarities, while welcoming differences.  

  • Development of widespread connection techniques such as circling.
    Nudge videos from the public domain, or from internal change makers

  • Nudge videos from the public domain, or from internal change makers

  • Crowd produced interview videos linking pairs of people at different levels of the organization (e.g production staff and senior management), in a human relational context.

  • Grassroots, open capturing a ‘shitlist’, or ‘backlog’, of things that could be improved in the company (local and company wide) and importantly linking it to the daily struggle with and impact of bureaucracy.  

  • Facilitating official and unofficial hackathons to propose solutions to ‘shitlist’ problems
    Invitation to consciously uncouple from systems (e.g. no clocking in on a given day)

  • Invitation to consciously uncouple from systems (e.g. no clocking in on a given day)

  • Unofficial events organized to share experiences and stories, and to develop unity amongst the people - development of online/offline communities of practice

  • Writing satirical articles about company culture (e.g. www.managing-spaghetti.com)    

Warning: while I clearly state that anything can happen and people will likely be offended at some point, this shouldn’t mean running around and deliberately trying to upset people.  Try to be conscious of your motivation: are you trying to upset people or are you trying to bring attention to something that could be limiting them? And how much is this about addressing your frustration or anger or whatever?  How will you know the difference? I have no answer for that. Just try.