The Paradox of Disruption

helicopter at sunset

Overseas, there were myriad ways to disrupt the enemy network: daytime presence patrols, psychological warfare, direct action missions, fly-bys. A fly-by, for example, is when a helicopter flies over a known area of interest in hopes of sparking fear in the hearts of (would-be) insurgents on the ground, thereby disrupting their localized intentions.

What’s so interesting here is the paradox: with disruption there must also be creation. Allow me to brain vomit here for a second…

To disrupt is to “drastically alter or destroy” (according the oracle known as my Macbook Pro dictionary), and so at the very instant of disruption that thing that was disrupted no longer exists. It’s gone, or at the very least it’s now past physical state has morphed into something else; something different which indicate a newness to it.

To disrupt is to do differently from that of the past and create something new for the future, hence the reason why disruption is the key to lifelong learning, and therefore success.

Make it Matter

It’s so easy to see disruption as an inconvenience, as something that will somehow change you or your routine. So what if it does? Hopefully you are not so arrogant as to believe that what you know and how you work is the end-all-be-all? Sure, humans are certainly creatures of habit but we are also creatures of creativity. Nothing else on earth has the ability to learn and adapt like we do. Just ask the dinosaurs.

Disruption offers the opportunity to create—and therefore, learn—because it redefines purpose. In other words, if the enemy’s current intent is to plant three more IEDs along the road but a helicopter flies overhead sending the message, “We’re here, we see you,” then the enemy now has a new purpose: to flee back to safety and re-purpose their malevolent intent for another day.

Business is no different.

What if we scale this up from an individual level to an organizational level? What if, for instance, your team (let’s just keep the size small) was designed for disruption? Right off the bat it would mean that they could react immediately when a new competitor threat emerged, that they could create a solution at a moment’s notice, and that in the interim (while not warding off their foes) they are still working to make systems and processes more effective?

HP’s Challenge: Creating More for Less

Back when computer hardware was “in” and oversized printers were cool, the computer giant Hewlett-Packard had a mandate for its printing division: build a $49 printer to be sold for twice the amount. However, HP’s most inexpensive printer at the time was $79, so the had to figure out a way to produce cheaper, but sell higher. Additionally, their goal was to cut the production time (from conception to innovation) in half—faster than HP had ever done before.


Add to this the fact that one of HP’s competitors had done the same thing—produced a less-than-$100-printer and doubled its market share–which meant HP had to adapt. Surely if a smaller competitor could do it then the computing industry giant (HP) could, too, right?

The Solution

A new (disruptive) perspective is oftentimes what it takes to really drive home a learning point. The more senses involved in learning, the “stickier” that learning becomes.

So, how did the printing division of HP disrupt their old perspective and create a new one? Their project lead brought one of the company’s current printers into the room and, with everyone watching, stood on top of it. What happened?

The printer did not budge.

Now, the average weight of an American male is 195.5 pounds (thank you Google), so let me ask this: what is it about placing roughly 200 pounds on top of an object that carries paper just seems odd?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t necessarily need a printer that can withstand a two hundred pound pressure test–I just need it to print! So, all the costs associated with producing the heavy material used in printer construction were reflected in the retail price…and a quiet, “Ahaaaa” was whispered throughout the crowd.


HP had been producing printers for a long time, and therefore the mental frameworks, models, schemas or whatever you want to call the mental “box” remained the same. The lessons learned from one generation were passed down throughout the organization, only to be repeated again and again because there was no disruption.

Nobody questioned current practices.

Nobody conducted a post-mortem or after action review to learn and build upon opportunities.

Nobody collaborated with the intent to ideate more solutions.

In cultures of strong tradition, the risk to status quo is high because of the lack of disruption. The longer a mental model remains in place the greater the forces required to change them. In this case, it literally took a human being to stand on top of the printer to create the “Aha!” moment that everybody needed.

What the department head did was disrupt peoples’ traditional thinking and create a new one, and he did so in three ways:

Identify where you want to go.

Define where you want to go and what “ideal” looks like. In the case above, the goal was to lower production costs and increase pricing, but the strategies for getting there were undefined. Nobody could figure out how to achieve the endstate until their reality was challenged (you might even say, disrupted). Try this: if creativity is a challenge for you, identify the norm and then find its opposite. Chances are you’ll open up your mind to brainstorming more and more ideas, and if you don’t, I know a great coach who can help.

Identify what you have.

Call me crazy (you wouldn’t be the first) but “printer” is not synonymous with “200 pound paper weight.” Challenge reality. Get curious about why “X” works but “Y” doesn’t. Why not?

Identify why a discrepancy exists.

This is where you get the biggest bang for the buck, because if you can demonstrate—through as many experiential learning opportunities as possible—the challenge between what “is” and what “will be” (or, ideally be) then arriving at the pre-stated goal will be that much more apparent.

The reality of the above printer was that it was excessively large, burdensome, and constructed of the costly (read heavy) materials–wrong materials for what the goal demanded. How did that reality present itself? What was the collaboration process to get there? Who was included or excluded from the emails, meetings, or product updates? Oh, did somebody have an important hallway conversation and forget to pass the word? Hmm, that’s strange; it probably won’t happen again.

Yeah right!


If you’re stuck in a rut of doing the same ol’ same ol’, how can you disrupt the old and instigate the new? What would the exact opposite of what you do, for instance, drum up in that creative mind that normally only gets tapped when trying to get out of a speeding ticket? (Police officer: “Sir, you were doing 54 in a 45 mph zone.” Driver: “Oh sorry, that must be my dyslexia again.”)

The key here is to find the balance between disruption (curiosity) and creativity; to reap the rewards of opportunity that change provides but steer clear of the havoc that disruption sometimes brings.