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Research · Gerard Seijts

Disruption head-on

Dec 1, 2018

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Disruption is headline news for organizations these days. Search Google for the term “Business Disruption” and more than 78,000,000 results pop up. Every business expert seems to have answers to the challenges that organizations face as a result of disruption.

Ivey Professors Tima Bansal, Eric Morse, and Gerard Seijts took a different approach. Rather than theorize the answers, these researchers went face-to-face with leaders in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors to find out what organizations were experiencing on the frontlines. At numerous roundtable discussions in North America, Europe and Asia, leaders outlined for them the major disruptions facing businesses, and what was required to mitigate, or even harness, the impact of the disruptive forces.

These roundtable sessions yielded a vast array of ideas, insights and, more often than not, questions, which have been gathered on Ivey’s Business Disruption site.

Ivey Professor Gerard Seijts has synthesized some of the key learnings uncovered at the roundtable discussions, along with some key insights from three senior executives he interviewed for the project.

Here are just some of the highlights of what successful organizations are doing:

  • Reinvent yourself – Organizations that think they have the problem solved will definitely be run over by disruption. Reinventing your organization and its processes will keep you ahead of the curve. This requires leaders to create hypervigilance in the organization and to continuously challenge their colleagues.
  • Take communications very seriously – One roundtable participant admitted that she and her MBA classmates hadn’t taken their sole communications course very seriously, two decades ago; today, she observed, students would be wise to invest their time and attention into taking more communications courses. For example, business schools should help individuals understand that the kinds of rapid pivots that they’re going to have to make as leaders will create the risk of disengagement—people won’t always get it!—which means, in turn, that they will have to be extraordinary, relentless communicators.
  • Stay curious – Curiosity is a key attribute of a successful leader. It is the people who are willing to examine emerging information, explore new fields, and delve into and probe uncertainty who are best equipped to manage effectively in the context of disruption.
  • Be rooted in multiple fields – A grounding in more than one field is one of the strongest foundations for career success, our participants generally agreed, with STEM/management combinations being an obvious choice. Somewhat surprisingly, though, several people in the discussions made a strong pitch for a non-STEM joint degree for managers, as well — for example, the humanities, geography, or history.
  • Be an entrepreneur in your organization – “Big organizations need to build the entrepreneurial mindset into their organizations,” was the way one participant put it. “They need to find ways to harness the incredible streams of information that are out there. They need to provide great opportunities for young people.” In other words, they have to put traditional resources — people, data, and so on—to new and bold uses.
  • Be a life-long learner – Continuous learning is another key strategy in managing disruption. It is important to keep taking new ideas and tools on board and business schools, including Ivey, should put more emphasis on creating a structure of lifelong learning to facilitate this trend.

Seeking out successful leaders

Researchers have also focused on individual leaders who are succeeding in this age of disruption. Three such leaders are General Motors’ Mary Barra, the first female CEO of a Detroit-based automaker, Charles Brindamour, Chief Executive Officer of Intact Financial Corporation, and David McKay, Chief Executive Officer of RBC.

Barra sat down with Seijts to discuss leading the company in a time of unprecedented innovation and technological change. One of the key takeaways of the interview was the idea of embracing cross-collaboration:

“Embrace cross-collaboration,’ she told Seijts. “Work hard at it from a cultural perspective. Make people understand it’s not about functional areas, it’s about creating a common culture that is willing to find internal trade-offs in the best interest of the whole enterprise and its customers. It’s about thinking win/win, not win/lose.”

Perhaps making fewer headlines, but still enjoying success, is Brindamour, who is quietly disrupting his own organization in ways that are unique to the sector. In the article, Brindamour outlines key learnings in facing disruption:

  • Challenge the status quo in your own organization;
  • Make sure that curiosity is a key critical leadership attribute;
  • Drive energy and optimism around change; and
  • Be brave in making the necessary changes to an organization that disruption demands.

Lastly, David McKay opined that “You have to be resilient. There are many more setbacks because things are happening so fast. You think you have a clear path to launching a product. You think you’re going to be first to market only to have someone usurp that. You can continue on the path, you can change the product, you can change the market strategy. All of this requires quick redeveloping. We call it pivoting – some people call it failing fast. It is knowing when to stop and go in a different direction. It’s hard for big organizations because you’re trying to build your brand as an individual, you’re trying to be successful to get promoted, and therefore stopping something and saying it didn’t work, or won’t work, and I’m going to take my resources, financial and team, and go in this direction requires courage.“

The researchers also heard about the important role business schools can play in helping leaders. Here is how one participant put it:

“The thing I always say to our people is, ‘It’s not important that I know, but it’s important that I know that you know.’ In other words, the leader constantly probes, and makes sure that his or her people are getting where they need to go. And that’s what business education needs to instill in tomorrow’s leaders.”

To add your voice to the disruption conversation, go to the site, and click on Share Your Perspective.