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26 AUGUST 2020
Does disruption distress you?

by Alan Hosking: Publisher of HR Future, South Africa's human strategy magazine, and a Leadership Renewal Coach for senior executives.

A word that’s on everybody’s lips at the moment – apart from words like “pandemic”, “Covid19” and “lockdown” – is the word “disruption”. It’s been in fashion in the business world over the past few years but is now taking on a new meaning. It’s therefore worth busting a few myths about this phenomenon that’s become part of our professional and personal lives.

Myth 1: Disruption is something new

A common myth about disruption is that people think it’s something new – something that’s only been around about 20 years – since the turn of the century. That is not at all the case. Disruption has been around for as long as the Universe has existed. In fact, our Universe was shaped by a series of massive disruptions – like heavenly bodies colliding with one another. Because we humans weren’t around to witness those early disruptive events, those disruptive events don’t lessen the impact they had on life as we know it today.

And disruptive events have continued to happen as mankind has sought to make the world a better place. Think about the disruption that must have been caused when humans first discovered how to control fire almost two million years ago. We, in our comfortable homes of 2020, might snort at the fact that controlling fire could be considered a disruptor but, in modern speak, that was the latest technology of the day that disrupted the way people lived, by making life a lot more comfortable, much like technology today is making life more convenient.

With a little imagination, you can picture our cavemen brothers and sisters battling to get their heads around how to control and use fire, much in the same way that people learn how to use the latest technology today to perform some function.

And so we could look back through history at the many disruptions that have occurred – like the plagues in the 1600s or the invasions of foreign tribes of territory occupied by others. In South Africa, we are still experiencing the effects of the disruption that occurred in the 1600s when Jan van Riebeeck and his ship mates arrived at the Cape of Good Hope and disrupted the lives of those already living on the southern tip of the African continent.

Disruption 2: Disruption can be anticipated

Another myth about disruption is that, if we’re agile, we’ll be able to anticipate it. By their nature, we do not see the real disruptors coming. If, this time last year, some expert had announced that about 80 to 90% of the global workforce would be working from their homes in six or seven months’ time, we would all have fallen about laughing, but who would have thought …? Covid-19 sure got us all to do that pretty fast!

The two World Wars in the last century were major disrupting events, yet Britain never saw the Second World War coming. The then British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, had gone to Germany to meet with Hitler in September 1938 and signed the Munich Agreement. He returned from that meeting to make the following announcement to the British public: “My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”

Ironically, less than a year later Britain was at war with Germany. Bear in mind that, in the 1930s when life moved relatively slowly, a year was not a long time.

Myth 3: Disruption is destructive

A third myth about disruption is that it is usually negative or destructive. While many disruptions may have undesirable consequences, numerous disruptive events have seen the birth of significant innovations. Despite the tragic loss of life during the Second World War, those years and the years following, saw significant leaps forward in all sorts of technology. While the first seeds of RADAR technology were sown in the late 1800s, the Second World War resulted in the British perfecting the workings of RADAR which contributed to them winning the war – and making air travel today the safe mode of transport it is.

It’s therefore important for us to look for the innovation opportunities that are hiding in the disruptions that Covid19 has caused and is causing. Already, a new non-invasive respirator has been developed, as have other treatment modalities. Consider the opportunities that will arise from people working remotely, whether from home or elsewhere.

When all is said and done, how each one of us responds to disruption is what is important. Try not to let disruption be a stressor in your life. Rather, try to use it as an opportunity to reinvent yourself as a person – as a life partner, as a parent and as a professional. This will enable you to emerge from this disruptive time a better, stronger and more competent person. The alternative is to dig your heels in and resist any changes that might challenge you to grow to new heights. Despite not being able to control our environment, we still have freedom – the freedom to exercise our choice, so the choice you make is entirely up to you!

HR Future
HR Future is South Africa's only independent, most forward thinking human resource magazine with the richest content wealth of HR related issues on the continent of Africa to help executives recruit, manage, train, reward and retain the best talent. Visit our InfoCentre or website.

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