If Disruption Is What You Really Want, Here’s How to Put It Into Practice

Radical innovation requires radical changes in our behavior

Man running through open door in profile of head into multicolored spectrum
Disruption can make people defensive, but once embraced, it'll help rock an industry to its core.
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The definition of disruption has become diluted by our industry’s obsession with turning well-intentioned concepts into overused buzzwords.

You’ve almost surely been in a briefing where the ask has been some form of disruption: disrupt creativity, disrupt the internet, disrupt culture, disrupt the way we use X product in Y space. This isn’t just about creativity. As someone who has navigated four disciplines within advertising, I’ve seen disruption falter in practice from strategic, managerial, creative and people standpoints.

Disruption at its core is the idea of shaking the standards to create something new—as new as an idea can be, anyway. This radical innovation is mandatory in a landscape that changes with every text and tweet. What do we do when the culture is changing, and we aren’t changing quickly enough with it? What do we do when the internet lifts the veil between people and product, when companies are held accountable for the things they create and the people who create them?

True disruption requires discomfort, an introduction of perspectives that rattle the status quo. It requires check-ins, accountability and commitment. And in an increasingly multicultural, multigenerational market, it requires making space for new voices.

If we want to adapt as organizations, we must adapt as people.

Here’s how we can actually practice the idea of disruption and reap its benefits to reflect the changing world we live in.

Create equity and trust for new voices

A company is only as strong as the people who run it. So often, we ask for disruption or diversity of people and thought as a means to sound progressive, yet when it comes time for the new voices to enforce their opinions, these voices are often dismissed. Disruption happens when new voices are not just heard but valued beyond convenience.

This kind of equity—an equal weight of power—comes from trust. The magic of disruption in practice comes from the marriage of new and established voices. It’s when the creative director collaborates with the social media-savvy intern or when the new hire with no advertising experience collaborates with the seasoned advertising vet.

Approach discomfort with curiosity

Change is uncomfortable because it requires a confrontation of the unfamiliar, and the unfamiliar is often associated with fear. Disruption makes us defensive. We take new suggestions as an attack, as if deviating from our original plan negates our expertise. It’s a natural reaction, as we have been biologically programmed to fear the unfamiliar.

But during these moments of discomfort, what if we looked within? What if, whenever we were approached with a situation that challenged our preconceived beliefs, we accepted the discomfort and asked it questions? Questions like, what is this challenging in me? What outcome do I want? Am I being too precious about my work? Am I being open to collaboration?

Make it a priority to invest in the future

Change requires a fundamental shift in the structures of power. Advertising and the creative industries were founded by white, cisgender, hetero, upper-class men. By default, this industry reflects the idea that white, cis, hetero, upper class is the norm, thus anything that deviates from this is considered disruptive.

Cue additional buzzwords like diversity and inclusion. In order to expand the practice of creativity, it’s necessary to expand the practice of leadership. And leadership can’t be built without the investments of time and commitment. Investing in partnerships with organizations like Adcolor, the 4A’s Multicultural Advertising Intern Program (MAIP) and Minorities in Media Connect (Mimconnect) and investing in people that expand the traditional structures of power creates a sustainable practice of disruption.

Adapt the rules and change the process

Ideas are dismissed every day for the sake of process and tradition. Though process keeps the work moving, delegates responsibilities and maintains organization within chaos, process doesn’t favor change. To be open to disruption, we have to be open to the idea that not every situation will warrant the same process and guidelines. If we want to adapt as organizations, we must adapt as people.

These tips aren’t foolproof or perfect. The very nature of disruption speaks to the idea of constant change. As we evolve as an industry, as a generation and as individuals, we must remember that disruption gives us the freedom to exercise creativity in exciting ways that builds new muscles. We must recognize and move forward with practices that work, let go of practices that don’t work, and remember that we are always a work in progress.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 30, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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