Welcome and Unwelcome Disruption

My 17-year-old daughter Genevieve arrives home from two months in India today. While there, she has become a wedding crasher. Apparently, it’s an honour for [blonde, foreign] visitors to attend weddings, even [or especially?] uninvited, and she and her travel companions have been happy to oblige. I look forward to hearing their stories.

Such a cultural difference in norms! My initial reaction was, “Shouldn’t people know the people who come to their wedding? What about getting the numbers to the caterer in advance? Do you need to bring a gift?” “No, Mom — our presence is the gift. We’re not seen as a disruption.”

“Disruptor” has taken on a positive sheen recently, hasn’t it? In Forbes magazine, Hint Inc. CEO Kara Goldin refers to disruption as a “unicorn” and an “extreme sport” in Silicon Valley. Just in the past 24 hours, I have been grateful to use the services of three disruptors that have directly improved the quality of my life: Airbnb, Uber and Amazon Prime. Can you imagine the looks around the table at Amazon when someone said, “We need to figure out a way to deliver our stuff anywhere within 24 hours?” I bet there were more than a few naysayers. But they’ve done it, and it’s made Indigo’s (roughly the Canadian equivalent of Barnes and Noble) several-day delivery period seem like a snail’s pace. It was not long ago that waiting a few days was fine with me. Not anymore.

But disruption is, by definition, still uncomfortable. And it’s not always positive, no matter how innovative and open to change we might wish to be.

When I teach facilitation skills, participants report being most afraid of not knowing how to handle disruptive participants. I usually talk about the difference between fear and danger: our fear of unruly people far outweighs the actual danger of people behaving badly in meetings. Yet my experience of the past few weeks is causing me to revise that script. I’ve led several workshops in which folks have behaved in unexpected, disruptive ways that I can only describe as outrageous.

No matter how Nimble I might pride myself in learning to be, these ones caught me off guard. No amount of preparation would have led me, in my cultural context of meeting norms, to predict the behaviours I’ve recently witnessed. We’re still in the midst of sifting through the impact, but at the moment I can’t say these disruptions have improved the quality of the experiences or outcomes.

But might they yet? This “month of a full moon” in my practice has led me to wonder about the difference between positive and negative disruption in the moment. Can we really tell? I suspect some disruptors who would now be judged as innovators were labelled “disturbers” initially. And I’m quite sure most taxi drivers still don’t see Uber and Lyft as a welcome disruption to their business model.

It’s all a question of perspective. My interpretation of people’s actions as outrageous, or even downright rude, might be unfair. Maybe I need to see them as “welcome strangers at my wedding.” I’m admittedly not quite there yet. Twenty-four-hour delivery time, if you can pull it off, is helpful to your customers. Bad behaviour isn’t.

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