On August 15, 2019, I gave the keynote address at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Essentials Conference. I've pulled the content from that speech into a series of three blog posts on change.
If you actually feel or perceive that change is happening faster and more dramatically than it has in the past, you are not wrong. The rate and pace of change has accelerated in many ways. One of the areas this is most obvious is in the tech world. The first iPhone was released in 2007, just 12 years ago. It’s now not only the most ubiquitous technology out there, but it has had huge influence on the tech industry. The ripple effect of the iPhone on communication, banking, music, photography, is enormous. In 2015, several executives in the tech industry got together with the Apsen Institute to talk about what was happening and they have described it as navigating continual disruption. A “disruption” is an event, often unexpected, that interrupts the normal course of events or challenges the unity of something.
So, what happens when we are living in an era of continual disruption? When we have an unexpected, unity challenging event basically all the time? It requires us to radically change our views of the world and embark on a very painful transition that will significantly effect us in the short term. As humans, we have an almost infinite capacity to rationalize why responding to disruptive challenges is not necessary. In the tech world, those that didn’t respond went away. Does anyone remember the Zune? I had a Zune.
What are disruptions in the nonprofit sector? What are the unexpected unity challenging events that affect our work? Often, these can be changes in policy or the funding environment, like when funders change their strategic priorities or when the business model of longstanding funders like the United Way no longer works. Or in times of recession when demand for our services come at the same time when funding becomes constrained.
But disruptions are not all bad. We often need disruption. We need it to challenge the status quo. Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have been important disruptions to the unity of white supremacy and patriarchy. We need disruption when we need to make important shifts in the ways that we do our work. They are the things that cause disequilibrium, discomfort, which is actually the place where growth happens, where new ideas and innovations emerge.
Sometimes we need to challenge our previously held conceptions of the world. A disruption is not change in and of itself. It is the catalyst to accelerate or shift the course of change. And in almost all realms of our modern lives, both professional and personal, these disruptions are happening on a constant basis.
A metaphor that is often used for people in organizations experiencing this kind of continual disruption is permanent white water. This was first introduced by Peter Vaill, in Learning as a Way of Being. Here’s how he describes it:
“Most managers are taught to think of themselves as paddling their canoes on calm, still lakes. . . . They’re led to believe that they should be pretty much able to go where they want, when they want, using means that are under their control. Sure there will be temporary disruptions during changes of various sorts–periods when they’ll have to shoot the rapids in their canoes–but the disruptions will be temporary, and when things settle back down, they’ll be back in the calm, still lake mode. But it has been my experience . . . that you never get out of the rapids. . . . The feeling is one of continuous upset and chaos”
I have a feeling, whether you are a manager or not, this feeling is familiar to you. That maybe in your work, or in another part of your life, you are riding perpetual rapids.
Where in your life are you riding perpetual rapids? What does it feel like?
Where in your life do you NEED some disruption? What needs to shift or be challenged?
Read Part 2 and Part 3 of this series!