When you go out to a restaurant, one of the first things they give you is a glass of ice water. It’s an everyday exchange we rarely notice, let alone think about. But within those little ice cubes lies a deep story of innovation and some lessons in disruption from which we can all benefit.
In the 1850s, ice was a prized commodity. Harvesters waited until the peak of winter, then traveled to a frozen lake or pond and carved out large chunks of ice. At the end of the 19th century, over 10 million tons of ice were harvested and used annually in the U.S.
But while it was a thriving industry, ice harvesting had limitations (e.g., weather, location, and seasonality). Ice harvesting soon gave way to the ice factory. And, in 1920, ice ranked ninth in investment among American commercial enterprises.
As successful as the ice factory was, it was not immune to disruption. In 1927, along came the home refrigerator, giving everyone their own personal “ice factory.” And, just like that, the ice factory fell to its knees.
A lesson on disruption we all need to learn
In the span of about 77 years, the ice industry went through three revolutions. And the leader in each period never made the transition to the next stage.
As a modern business, your chances of being disrupted are even higher. The threat doesn’t just apply to companies, but also to entire industries. According to research from Cisco, executives across major industries like hospitality, retail, and financial services perceive there is a high risk of being put out of business altogether by digital disruption.
No matter how successful your company is today, there is no such thing as “too big to fail.” The unpredictability of the future makes it impossible to know what investment or innovation will prevail. The only solution for companies is to “lean in” to that inevitable change – to focus on disrupting yourself before someone else does. This means creating a company culture that embraces and enforces systemic changes.
But companies cannot transform unless the people in them – and the executives who run them – actively drive the agenda. Here are a few suggestions on how business leaders can personally embrace change, and then apply it to their organizations.
Let others teach you
At Cisco, we used reverse mentoring as a way to help senior executives learn from millennials on how to use social media and other communication tools of today. In addition to strengthening their understanding, it also set an important precedent – breaking down the typical barrier between executives and employees and empowering them to bring new ideas to the table. Ultimately, it helped us establish a culture of constant growth, healthy risk-taking, creative ideation, and, most significantly, it kept executives abreast of what was available. This was a win-win scenario for all involved.
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good
I grew up at a time in business where perfection was the mandate. There were numerous instances where products were delayed for non-critical business reasons. But that was then, and this is now. Today, time to market and speed are much more crucial than perfection. Think of all the products that Google has launched that were beta – there’s even a website dedicated to their AI experiments that anyone can test out.
The new expectation of the day: Get your products to market ASAP, and work with your customers to improve them continuously. This is a shift in culture from perfect to good enough.
Never waste a crisis situation
Organizational change is one of the hardest things to do as a leader. The larger the organization, the harder it becomes. For that reason, when things go wrong, it’s a golden opportunity to leverage a change. You can execute a dramatic change during a crisis that would be impossible in a non-crisis situation.
So ask yourself, “If we experience a crisis today, besides resolving the crisis, what changes would I like to make?” Be nimble and improve your capacity – and willingness – to make big systemic changes after a crisis.
So if the you-know-what hits the fan, rejoice. Recognize you have an opportunity to reinvent yourself. And use it to figure out how to improve your organization.
Create a burning platform
If you’re trying to transform your company – or even trying to encourage it to adopt a new idea – the biggest challenge you’ll face is influencing everyone else to change with you. You have to find a way to drive everyone around you to think differently, to go against pre-established rules, and to preemptively fix things that are not yet broken.
Do this by creating a burning platform for your company. Set your eyes on a competitor that your organization wants to displace – or an emerging company that you want to stay ahead of. Make up a competitor if you have to. The key is to establish a powerful motivator that everyone in your company can rally around – a compelling reason for your company to disrupt itself before disruption knocks on the door.
Everything changes. Truth is, it always has – just ask that poor guy with his frozen pond and rusting ice saw. Now, no one’s saying that handling disruption is easy. But by integrating flexibility, constant learning, and fear-free creativity into your own and your company’s DNA, you’ll be ready to handle change not as a one-off, existential crisis, but as business as usual. The key thing to remember, as Jack Welch would say, is to “change before you have to.”
Carlos Dominguez (@carlosdominguez) is president for Sprinklr. Sprinklr offers the only social media management system that enables global scale of social customer experience management (CEM) for the social enterprise. Learn more.