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This is the age of disruption. Whether you realize it or not, disruptive forces are at work in your industry. As a communications leader, it is important that you keep an open mind about change and be hypervigilant to provide your CEO with pertinent information about emerging trends and opportunities inside and outside your industry or sector.

From your CEO’s perspective, this is where creativity has real value.

Macro trends, such as mobility, generational change in the workplace and globalization have massive effects on the attitudes and behaviors of individuals. How are your customers and communities changing, and what do these changes mean to their relationship with your organization? What creative new approaches are being developed to address emerging or overlooked customer needs? 

In this age of disruption, the PR counselor can play a central role in formulating business and communications strategies that encourage change and capitalize on it.
All business pivots are rooted in such strategies and the data that drives them.

As an entrepreneur, I can assure you that a pivot is more than a mere concept. It is personal.

For more than a dozen years we profitably grew a respected Web marketing brand. Along the way, we built Tendenci software for associations and nonprofits. A couple years ago, after a great deal of deliberation, we released Tendenci software to the open-source community, essentially giving away the code for software that cost approximately $6 million to build. Then we renamed the company and narrowed our focus, spinning off Web marketing services to other providers that made up nearly half our revenue at the time.

From the outside, it looked like we were dismantling one of the fastest-growing companies in Houston. That’s the danger of looking in the rearview mirror rather than at the horizon and beyond.

Businesses and nonprofit organizations can either be the disrupted, the disrupters — or both. Every day, we make choices that either direct our organizations down the expected and comfortable path or send us exploring. We may reach dead ends or we may stumble into unexpected discoveries.

Research in motion

On June 29, 2007, the world changed.

If the public statements from RIM’s co-CEO, Jim Balsillie, were any indication, then the market leader was unfazed.

“It’s kind of one more entrant into an already very busy space with lots of choice for consumers. But in terms of sort of a sea change for BlackBerry, I would think that’s overstating it.”

At the time, BlackBerry was winning its battle for market share with Palm. In fact, RIM’s market share actually went up during the last half of 2007 — rising from 38 percent when the iPhone hit the market to 43 percent in January 2008. The future seemed bright, with BlackBerry enjoying a firmly entrenched business user base, but BlackBerry’s market share was never that high again.

The world was different after the introduction of the modern smartphone, which profoundly shifted user expectations and demands. And this was RIM’s undoing: not understanding that the expectations of their own customers were altered the moment they saw what the iPhone could do.

Wherever they went, everyone with an iPhone suddenly had access to the Web, their social networking tools, their camera, their movies and music, and a seemingly bottomless pool of apps. And most who didn’t have an iPhone wanted a device that did all that.

The latest report from International Data Corporation (IDC) pegs BlackBerry’s market share at 0.5 percent.

Meanwhile, it is not Apple who commands the market today — it is Google’s Android, with a stunning 85 percent market share. Android was not first; its disruption was to be an open system, which allowed a variety of device manufacturers to build on it.

RIM disrupted Palm; Apple disrupted RIM; and Google disrupted Apple. All this happened in the span of about a decade, and each leap in capability contributed to revolutionary changes in how people connect.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to second guess the relative inaction of RIM despite what now seem like clear signs that their world would soon crumble around them. They were, in fact, behaving very rationally — very humanly. The experts call it “confirmation bias” — our tendency to look for and interpret information in a way that confirms what we already believe.

Confirmation bias is the greatest threat to your organization. It is the enemy of creativity and vice versa.

Unknown unknowns

When he was U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld once famously broke down national intelligence into four quadrants: known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Both CEOs and their PR counselors should be creatively driven by that final quadrant — the things we don’t know we don’t know.

Below are a few tips for how to encourage a culture of curiosity and creativity necessary for organizations to thrive in this age of disruption. I present these with the caveat that I learned them through hard knocks that resulted from frequent mistakes during our company’s pivot:

• Expect and welcome disruption. Ironically, suddenly introducing the idea of disruption out of the blue can be disruptive — and not in a good way. Normalize it by including topics related to market disruption during routine staff meetings and in internal communications. Just as Google’s Gmail and AdSense services emerged from employee side projects, your organization can encourage and reward entrepreneurial activities that anticipate market shifts.

• Stretch beyond reporting to imagining. Organizational communications pros tend to do a great job of gathering, packaging and reporting information about the known knowns — the here and now. Less emphasis is placed on helping CEOs raise questions and articulate possibilities. Doesn’t that seem backward? Routinely engage people throughout the organization as well as your customers in imagining, but be ready to push people beyond the knowns into the unknowns.

• Resist confirmation bias. Creativity isn’t always fun and games — it can also consist of challenging and pushing back. There is nothing more creative than challenging ideas and solutions that seem obvious. In his book, “In Mixed Company: Communicating in Small Groups and Teams,” J. Dan Rothwell wrote, “Groups that resist confirmation bias and actively search for possible flaws in decisions and solutions usually make better choices than groups that don’t.”

• Use positive language. It is interesting that disruption is often discussed in negative terms. We use words such as “threats,” “attacks,” “vulnerabilities” and “gaps.” Semantics can be powerful in helping to establish an organizational mindset. When we use negative language, we frame change and disruption from a defensive posture. Eliminate that negative language and instead use terms such as “opportunities,” “possibilities” and “openings” to generate enthusiasm for change.

• Take care of you. One reason we resist change is that dramatic, disruptive change takes a toll — physically and emotionally. A radical organizational change will often sever relationships with employees and customers as the mission of an organization shifts, the skill sets needed are altered and business units are shut down or spun off. Feelings are hurt, rumors are started and it is all very personal. Have a support system in place — preferably with people outside the organization. Stay physically active and eat well. Organizational change requires the best from you.

Disruption is happening. Will you be the disrupter or the disrupted? In our case, I imagined a world in which our Web marketing services were increasingly commoditized. It soon would no longer matter that we had been at the forefront of social media, search engine optimization and content strategy. We had developed powerful software for associations and nonprofits, but development of Tendenci software was constrained by our team’s capacity.

The decision to release the software to the open-source community and spin off our Web marketing services was incredibly hard. Looking back, the biggest mistake was failing to do it as soon as I realized it was necessary. We are human and we resist change.

You can only have true creativity — the kind of creativity that changes the world — if you embrace discomfort.