Avatar photo

Disruption – destructive and creative

Is disruption good or bad? Have you noticed that there is much written about disruptive leadership, disruptive thinking and disruptive coaching? All of these suggest that disruption is the new desired positive way of being. But as a child, I remember a maths teacher sending me to the head teacher’s office for being disruptive in class. This was clearly a case a mistaken identity, but this experience left me with the life-long assumption that being disruptive is a very bad thing! So how should I respond to this new interpretation of disruption?

I travel a lot for my work, and often hear about disruptions to train services due to technical faults, or flights disrupted by bad weather. Disruption causes delays, lateness, stress and frustration. Disruption stops the flow of the normal way of being; it upsets routines, and gets in the way of things happening as they should. So this is obviously a bad thing to be avoided.


A few weeks ago I arrived at Euston Station in London to catch the train home after a day coaching. The overhead notice board was showing ‘cancelled’ and ‘delayed’ on almost all services. The trains were disrupted by a signalling fault north of London. With no indication of when this would be fixed, I was tired and worried about how I would get home after a long day, and stood grinding my teeth with frustration.

But disruptive leadership and disruptive thinking is seen as a very positive thing. How can this be, it’s disruptive?! The emphasis here is on creating an unconventional or unexpected approach. This is about radical change, such as introducing a new product or service that creates a new market. We can think of examples such as supermarkets selling petrol, low cost flight operators, internet media streaming, and many more. All of these disrupted the traditional established business models, and by taking a risk, a new normal is established.

A recent Forbes article said that the “Harvard Business School professor and disruption guru Clayton Christensen says that a disruption displaces an existing market, industry, or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile. It is at once destructive and creative.”

Traditional non-disruptive thinking uses small incremental steps to create change. This is the same as before, just more. Habits are formed, and the world is that of the known and familiar. Risks are avoided, as there is a strong attachment to the current ways of doing things.

A way to develop a more disruptive approach is to become aware of, and question our assumptions. These are the ‘givens’, the things we consider unchangeable, and that ultimately determine our actions and behaviour. Luke Williams, author of the book ‘ Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business ‘ encourages us to ask a simple question, “I wonder what would happen if we …?” For example, “I wonder what would happen if customers could refuel their cars when they visit our supermarket?”, “I wonder what would happen if we streamed videos and music over the internet so people could watch and listen to what they wanted, when and where they wanted?”

Let’s go back to my experience of the train cancellations at Euston Station. My train ticket was from Euston, and so my assumption was that this was the only way home. But I asked myself the question, “I wonder what would happen if I went to another train station?” The solution was not that difficult; I could walk 15 minutes to Marylebone Station to get a Chiltern Line train. The worst that would happen is that I’d have to pay for another ticket, but at least I’d get home at a reasonable time.

Although, at the time, I did not consider this a particularly creative solution, the disruption had forced me to engage my brain and think of ways around the problem. Instead of just accepting the cancellations at Euston and doing nothing except feeling angry that my routine had been disrupted, I took control and escaped towards Marylebone.

To add to this, at Marylebone, I met a former work colleague, someone I had not seen for 10 years. We were on the same train, and had a great journey together reminiscing, catching up and laughing about old times. He told me that he got the train at the same time every Friday, and so I’m look forward to going to Marylebone next time. Without the disruption, this meeting would not have happened.

Considering Challenging Coaching, by its nature it is disruptive; the book creates a new way of being, for coaching and coaches. Courageous goals disrupt incremental SMART goals, encouraging people to step into the unknown and make a fundamental change. So it’s time for me to change my life-long assumption, and to feel differently about the word ‘disruptive’.

What assumptions do you hold, what would happen if these assumptions were not fixed? What would happen if you took a risk, did something different, consciously considered alternative possibilities, new opportunities, and new ways of thinking and being?

Share your thoughts on this blog with over 1,200 coaches worldwide via our LinkedIn group