When Facing Disruption, the Unknown Is Your Greatest Ally

It’s okay to be vulnerable as you look at your organization holistically to identify where you need to grow as a leader and a company.

Change is inevitable—we all know this. History is full of stories of disruption that completely altered the business landscape and consumers’ ways of doing things. From the horse and buggy being usurped by the automobile to the concept of actually buying music disappearing in a slew of streaming services, disruption is sure to affect almost every facet of day-to-day living sooner or later.

Sometimes, these changes are predictable. Other times, disruption can be completely unforeseen—after all, most of us never saw the COVID-19 pandemic and the wide-ranging supply chain messes it created coming.

Disruption can present a real opportunity for leaders, but all too often, it doesn’t turn out that way. Knowing how to turn discomfort and the unknown into allies, rather than adversaries, is key to managing disruptive change successfully.

Disruption Is a Constant

Disruption can come at any time, and affect any area of your business. One recent example of this comes from Walnut, which launched its own campaign with the specific goal of disrupting standard SaaS sales processes.

“The SaaS sales process is horrible. It needed to change, and we weren’t the only ones who recognized there was a problem,” Yoav Vilner, co-founder and CEO of Walnut, explained. “We launched our #WeAreProspects campaign alongside partners like HubSpot and CloudShare to make SaaS sales more personalized, streamlined, and less complex. Reflecting on what bothered us about the status quo was key to finding ways to improve the experience—and to recognize that a straightforward, try-before-you-buy option works best. Facing this industry pain point with the goal of disruption was key to the success of our campaign launch.”

The campaign amassed a sizable response on LinkedIn (a unique yet relevant platform for launching a campaign, given LinkedIn’s frequent use for B2B sales). In this case, disruption wasn’t targeting a SaaS company’s services but rather how these organizations tried to sell their products to their customers. A new competitive advantage was created, and leaders would need to respond appropriately.

The Mistakes Leaders Make When Facing Disruption

When leaders—or anyone else, for that matter—face unforeseen change, they will often reflexively go back to a few basic reactions. And this can lead to significant missed opportunities.

They may draw from their own experiences, assuming that will be applicable to the new situation. This often also coincides with doubling down on the answers they “know,” rather than considering other possibilities.

Unfortunately, the situation can become even more dire as leaders try to cover up their discomfort with feigned confidence. Rather than admit their discomfort, they try to act like they’re the smartest person in the room. And as a result, they may become more directive and impatient, narrowing their available options for responding to the latest disruption. Eventually, they may be left with only one option—and it won’t be the most successful one.

All of these responses are done in an effort to mitigate their own discomfort—but more often than not, these reactions put leaders right into the mess they were hoping to avoid. They delay crucial decisions, or make poor choices based on outdated information, keeping their organization from responding appropriately.

How Leaders Should Use Their Discomfort to Become Disruptors

In reality, when faced with disruption, leaders should take advantage of their discomfort to face the unknown head-on and potentially become disruptors themselves.

How is this accomplished? It starts by pausing to reflect and think about the circumstances at hand. Asking yourself questions like “What can we learn from this?” or “What is the opportunity we’re not seeing?” can foster new insights that help you question old norms and react appropriately.

Of course, leaders are hardly alone in this process. Leaders should invite other team members and partners to be curious about facing discomfort. It’s okay to be vulnerable as you look at your organization holistically to identify where you need to grow as a leader and a company. The issues may lie within your strategy, culture, structure, talent, technology, or other areas—and sometimes, others are better positioned than you are to recognize these limitations and find ways to address them appropriately.

Recognizing your limitations and the root causes of disruption are key to finding ways to thrive. Making this a collaborative effort ensures you won’t miss out on crucial insights or fall into the rut of following the same thought patterns and responses you’ve always used in the past.

Vilner explains this isn’t something that should only happen when facing disruption. “The unknown is a constant in the business world,” he said. “Even if the status quo has been working for several years, you can never play it safe and assume it will stay that way forever. Regular reflection on your business, your industry, and other factors will help you identify potential disruptors and provide the opportunity to become a disruptor yourself. You can transform that sense of the unknown into a real advantage that drives growth.”

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Play to Your Unique Strengths

Whitney Johnson, one of the 50 leading business thinkers in the world and author of Disrupt YourselfPutting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work, says, “If you are trying to be an agent of disruption, first becomes its subject.” This is no easy task—opening yourself up to personal disruption can be deeply unsettling. According to Whitney, “if you feel scared, if you feel lonely, you’re on the right path to disruption—you’re on the right path to making a significant change.”

So how do you navigate such an uncomfortable and alienating experience, all while striving to steer your organization to success? One of the most important things to remember is to always leverage your unique strengths as an individual leader.

A client of mine recently took on the role of Chief Innovation officer at a global energy company. She had an amazing track record of technical breakthroughs, but she was also known to be interpersonally a bit harsh. Unbeknownst to many, she’d become a gourmet chef (most great innovators are known to have elaborate hobbies) and was known for hosting iron-chef level dinners. Most of the world never saw this stunning hospitable side of her. Now, in a global leadership role, she needed people to trust her instead of fear her. She learned to harness her warm, hospitable demeanor of her “chef” side with her brilliant, technical scientist side, and create an entirely new approach to leadership leveraging two things she loved passionately and did exceptionally.

Facing the Unknown—and Succeeding

Disruptive change doesn’t have to be a derailing event. Anticipated and embraced, it can be the unleasher of extraordinary opportunities, and the revealer of the best version of yourself you’ve not previously imagined. You just need the courage to take the first step. Whether disruption comes from competitors, world events, or even innovations unleashed by your own team, the way you respond to it as a leader will make all the difference. By leaning into discomfort, you can make confronting the unknown a real competitive advantage that helps your business adapt and thrive, no matter what the future might hold.

Ron Carucci is an Advisory Board member of Ethical Systems as well as cofounder and managing partner at Navalent. He is the bestselling author of eight books, and his work has been featured in Fortune, CEO Magazine, Harvard Business Review, BusinessInsider, MSNBC, BusinessWeek, and Smart Business.

Reprinted with permission from Forbes.