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Stop Trying to Disrupt Stuff and Get Business-As-Usual Right

At a recent author’s talk at the University of Toronto, Joshua Gans opened discussion about his latest book ‘Disruption Dilemma’ by observing:

“People now want to be called disruptive, even when what they are doing is not, and that is a problem.”

He’s right, of course. If I have to listen to one more person tell me that their business idea is ”like Uber, but for X” and then proceed to explain something that is completely and entirely un-Uberesque, I am going to start carrying an airhorn.

“It’s like Uber, but for pet foo-MEEEEEEHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

When did we forget that there are plenty of great ideas that are NOT disruptive, that do not revolutionize the way that things are being done, rendering the history of their industry to date obsolete?

It’s not that I don’t see the value and indeed the appeal in blowing things up. I absolutely do. And I think that being willing to question status quo practices and challenge orthodoxy is critical to being anything more than a robotic task-monkey these days.

But I worry that our preoccupation with game-changing, disruptive, extreme change is at the expense of other, less compelling opportunities for progress and competitive advantage, and risks more than it stands to reward us.

In Human Resources, this struggle is not new. We’ve seen it hashed out everywhere in the mainstream business media, industry publications, blogs, conferences, and even our discussions with each other.

Culture transformation, talent analytics, the latest HR Technology platform – a constant stream of blogs, HBR articles, and executive survey results seem to suggest that unless your HR department is holacracizing your R&D skunkworks to architect a self-disruptive innovation renaissance then you are probably just a bunch of grumpy, spinster cat ladies who like to tell people ‘no’ all day.

It’s easy to get caught up in this, right? It’s the corporate equivalent of rolling your eyes at the latest article titled “Follow These Gajillionaires’ pre-5 a.m. Chanting Rituals for Mind-Blowing Success”, or “Learn the Secret Method Elon Musk Uses to Wash his Face”, but then clicking through anyway. But that sexy HR we see lauded on our favorite blog or podcast is about as representative of real-life HR as most people’s Instagram feed is of their average breakfast (‘best before’ is a guideline, right?).

I’m not suggesting that we ignore real advances and trends that have potential to benefit the way we do HR. Exposing ourselves to new thinking and big ideas is a critically beneficial practice, but it’s always good to take note of their source and any agendas potentially in play. Just as there is a whole industry built on implying that women need special insider information to know how to be sufficiently female, there are a lot of consultancies, analysts, and advisory organizations that stand to profit from an HR profession that believes they’re fundamentally unequipped to do HR.

Of course I don’t deny that there is a lot of bad HR happening out there. There is. And as a practice HR has a complex and sometimes tenuous value chain. Clear ROI does not always exist, and when it does it’s often not immediately evident, or frequently obscured by the sheer number of variables and potentially spurious correlations that humans inherently introduce into the equation. I think that could be one reason we seem so susceptible to the disruption fixation in HR.

We also get a lot of bad press. A lot of people don’t like HR, and some for very good reason. So it’s certainly possible that would-be disruptors are correct, and that HR does need to take a scorched-earth approach, scrap HR as we know it, and start again.

But maybe, just maybe, your competitive advantage is built on doing great Business-As-Usual HR.

Designing solutions and programs for your organization rather than copying whichever organization everyone is emulating this month, prioritizing consistently excellent service delivery, providing thoughtful advice, true business partnering, investing focus into every micro-interaction that builds leadership capacity bit by tiny bit, implementing services that help employees be well and productive, and each tiny mincing step of learning and improvement you and your team take week to week.

For the most part, that is HR. It’s about the long game. It’s not glamorous. It’s not conference keynote material, and more often than not it’s not transformational or backed by the latest social platform. But it is much, much harder than it looks, and too few organizations are doing it well. This is a shame, since it can enable our organizations to do the things they exist to do and make a critical difference to individual and corporate success.

So before you decide that our profession, your team, or your organization need to be the next Uber, let’s remember that it’s very easy to undervalue what you are and overvalue what you are not.

Do not make me get my airhorn….

Photo credit: Dikaseva –

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. “But I worry that our preoccupation with game-changing, disruptive, extreme change is at the expense of other, less compelling opportunities for progress and competitive advantage, and risks more than it stands to reward us.” It seems the world operates on extremes today, which is why you are right to say we should question the status quo – we should question everything really …

    January 6, 2017

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Weekly Musings – January 15, 2017 | Talent Vanguard
  2. Are We Disrupted Yet? | Talent Vanguard

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