The Paradox of Disruption

Overseas, there were myriad ways to disrupt the enemy network: daytime presence patrols psychological warfare, direct action missions, even flybys. A fly-by, for example, is when a helicopter flies over a known area of interest in hopes of sparking fear in the hearts of (would-be) insurgents on the ground, thereby disrupting any short-term plans.

What’s so interesting here is the paradox of how with disruption there must also be creation. Allow me to brain vomit here for a second…

To disrupt is to “drastically alter or destroy” (according the oracle known as my Macbook Pro dictionary), and so at the very instant of disruption there exists nothing anymore—or at least something different in which case there is still a newness to it.

Yes, I know. It’s 5:43 in the morning and my brain is spewing out craziness. But this is interesting (at least, I think so)….

To disrupt is to do differently from that of the past and therefore create something new for the future, hence the reason why disruption is the key to lifelong learning, and therefore success.

Make it Matter

It’s so easy to see disruption as an inconvenience, as something that will somehow change you or your routine. So what if it does? Hopefully you are not so arrogant as to believe that what you know and how you work is the end-all-be-all? Sure, humans are certainly creatures of habit but we are also creatures of creativity. Nothing else on earth has the ability to learn and adapt like we do. Just ask the dinosaurs.

Disruption offers the opportunity to create—and therefore, learn—because it redefines purpose. That is, if the enemy’s current intent is to plant three more IEDs along the road but a helicopter flies overhead sending the message, “We’re here, we see you,” then the enemy now has a new purpose: to flee back to safety and re-purpose their malevolent intent for another day.

What if we scale this up from an individual level to an organizational level? What if, for instance, your team (let’s just keep the size small) was designed for disruption? Right off the bat it would mean that they could react immediately when a new competitor threat emerged, that they could create a solution at a moment’s notice, and that in the interim (while not warding off their foes) they are still working to make systems and processes more effective?

HP’s Challenge: Creating More for Less

Back when computer hardware was “in” and printers were cool, the computer giant Hewlett-Packard had a mandate for its printing division: build a $49 printer to be sold for twice the amount. While the economics may seem easy, the process of doing so—of disrupting the old—was not. Here’s why.

HP’s most inexpensive printer was still $79, or 37% higher than the new target price. To add more creative tension to this mandate, the intent was to cut the product time (from conception to innovation) in half—faster than HP had ever done before.

Add to this the fact that one of HP’s competitors had done the same thing—produced a less-than-$100-printer and doubled its market share. Surely if a smaller competitor could do it then the computing industry giant (HP) could, too, right?

The Solution

A new perspective (i.e. disruption) is oftentimes what it takes to really drive home a learning point. The more senses involved in learning, the “stickier” that learning lesson becomes.

So, how did the printing division of HP disrupt their old perspective and create a new one? Their project lead brought one of the company’s current printers into the room and, with everyone watching, stood on top of it.

And the printer did not budge.

What of this, you ask? Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t necessarily need a printer that can withstand a two hundred pound pressure test, I just need it to print! So, all the costs associated with producing that heavy material were reflected in the retail price…and a quiet, “Ahaaaa” was whispered throughout the crowd.


HP had been producing printers for a long time, and therefore the mental frameworks, models, schemas or whatever you want to call someone’s mental “box” remained the same. The lessons learned from one generation were passed down throughout the organization, only to be repeated rather than innovated. In cultures of strong tradition, the risk to status quo is high because of the lack of disruption. The longer a mental model remains in place, the greater the forces required to change them. In this case, it literally took a human being to stand on top of the printer to create the “Aha!” moment that everybody needed.

What the department head did was disrupt peoples’ traditional thinking and create a new one, and he did so in three ways:

Identify the goal (where).

Paint the picture of where you want to go and what “ideal” looks like. In the case above, it’s a $49 printer being sold for less than $100. For us overseas, we may conduct a helicopter fly-by over a known insurgent area to disrupt them and see what they do. The goal here would be collecting intel.

Identify the current state (what).

Physically demonstrate why something is wrong. An “ideal printer” is not synonymous with “200 pound paper weight.”

Identify the discrepancy (why).

This is where you get the biggest bang for the buck, because if you can demonstrate—through as many experiential learning opportunities as possible—the challenge between what “is” and what “will be” (or, ideally be) then arriving at the pre-stated goal will be that much more apparent. The reality of the current printer was that it was excessively large, burdensome, and constructed of the costly (read heavy) materials–wrong materials for what the goal demanded.

If you’re stuck in a rut of doing the same ol’ same ol’, how can you disrupt the old (i.e. current) to instigate the new? What would the exact opposite of what you do, for instance, drum up in that creative mind that normally only gets tapped when trying to get out of a speeding ticket? (“Sir, you were doing 54 in a 45 mph zone,” “Oh sorry, that must be my dyslexia again.”)


The key here is to find the balance between disruption and creativity; to reap the rewards of opportunity that change provides but steer clear of the havoc that disruption sometimes brings.

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