By Kelly Medinger
How to embrace chaos and see new ways to better outcomes
Last month we completed some office renovations that – while celebrated in appearance and increased functionality – disrupted our normal course of operations. So much so that I started calling the project “Operation Disruptive Innovation” in my own mind, in reference to the catalytic social change phenomenon with the same name (Christensen et. al., Disruptive Innovation for Social Change, Harvard Business Review, December 2006).
Yet disruption is part of our everyday work and life. How many times have you hosted a dinner party, only to have a dish not turn out or finish cooking on time? How many times have you been awarded a grant for a project, only to have an unanticipated challenge stall its progress? Things rarely go according to plan, and new challenges emerge at every turn.
The question isn’t how to minimize these disruptions, but how to maximize their usefulness. You see, when things go according to plan, we rarely have to think outside the box. But when things get turned upside down, we tend to produce new ideas and solutions that change the trajectory of our work. It seems disruption can help us be more creative and innovative, if approached with a positive mindset.
I recently attended a lecture by Robert Siegel, longtime host of All Things Considered on NPR. He walked through four life lessons, one for each decade he’s been in journalism. The first lesson was the most salient to me and touched on this point about disruption. Siegel advised, “When presented with a possibility, don’t spend your time thinking about why it won’t work. Instead spend your time figuring out how to make it work.” As a young editor at NPR, Siegel was at the table when the station decided to cover a major congressional event gavel to gavel. Instead of dismissing this unorthodox idea when the opportunity arose, his team concentrated on ways to seize the challenge. It disrupted NPR’s normal programming, but the groundbreaking coverage catapulted the station to new heights.
As “Disruptive Innovation” points out, “Organizations are set up to support their existing business models.” Most innovations, therefore, advance an organization’s current model by improving the quality or functionality of services offered. But disruptive innovations go beyond this realm of sustaining or enhancing existing operations. They break through barriers and bring new benefits to more people in simpler ways.
Some of our grantees have taken this approach to heart. Top of mind is the Cristo Rey Network, which has opened the door for 9,000 students nationwide to attend a Catholic school through its innovative work study program. Here in Baltimore, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School opened in 2007 and currently serves 360 boys and girls. Their formula is simple – students’ jobs help pay for school – yet radically different than the typical high school business model.
The big question, of course, is how to create disruptive innovation in the social sector and bring about the positive changes in education, health, and human services that we all desire. To answer that question, I might direct you to my colleague Kathleen McCarthy’s post on Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From. Because as Johnson (and my favorite GE commercial) expresses, “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” In other words, it’s difficult to accept new ideas in the context of our old environment.
At the Knott Foundation, our environment is looking a bit more new and fresh these days. And while “Operation Disruptive Innovation” might end with the completion of our office renovation, I hope the spirit of disruption continues to yield creative insights, a positive focus on possibilities, and new ideas that help change the world for the better.