Rowers, pirates and rocket ships: How do you respond to disruption?

View of the 7 miles bridges from pigeon Key

We’re all travelling across an uncertain ocean between the industrial and network society – and different strategies are in play.

If you look at how commercial organisations respond to disruptive change from new technologies there are a number of identifiable approaches. I call them row harder, go pirate or build a rocket.

  • Row harder: this will feel familiar to public sector bodies as its all about removing costs, becoming more lean and dialling up efficiency to counter the effect of a less buoyant market or changes to buyer behaviour. In the public sector context its about efficiency and cost cutting as a way of coping with austerity
  • Go pirate: Pirates are ruthlessly focused on out-performing their traditional rivals. They are betting that the market will evolve and not pivot and they they can out-compete the pack. Even is the challengers do come and disrupt their market they are banking on being first followers in the new market. Look at the massive investment that established banks put into the Fintech market or the investment that retailers like Tesco put into new models for examples of this strategy in action. Then think about how often integration strategies in public services feel more like pirate raids than genuine collaborations.
  • Build a rocket: Rocket builders are looking to reimagine their opportunity. Think about Air BnB vs the traditional travel market. They use new tools and technologies – and a digital mindset – to address implicit and explicit user needs in very different ways. These are organisations who are not just responding to changes in society but anticipating and in some cases shaping (think about how Amazon shaped our behaviours).

Of course its not that simple. Some rowers will get there through sheer determination and some pirates will chose to settle on a small island that they find on the way and carve a niche for themselves. Rocket ships will crash. But my point is that we are all in the ocean now and rowing around aimlessly will not get us across.

My suggestion? Use your pirate skills to capture an island within sight of the other shore and start building rockets. But your choice of strategy will depend as much upon your organisational culture and ambition as it does on your response to market forces. Knowing if you are in a boat full of rowers, pirates or rocket builders and recruiting the right team is critical to your success. Knowing if you yourself are a rower, pirate or rocket builder is just as important.

And if we are travelling across an uncertain ocean it could be that your compass is your most important tool. Do you know where you are going?

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