B S Raghavan

Dealing with disruptive contrarians

B. S. Raghavan | Updated on November 15, 2017

The dictionary gives the meanings of ‘disrupt' as: break apart; rupture; throw into disorder; interrupt the normal course or unity of something ongoing. Very often, being disruptive is also taken to carry a hint of being destructive.

No wonder, therefore, the whole world sat up and rubbed its eyes when the Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M.Christenson used the phrase ‘disruptive technology' in his book The Innovator's Dilemma published in 1997.

No wonder, too, the book became best-selling and the term he coined has endured to this day. The thesis he propounded was something similar to Isaac Newton's first Law of Motion: Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.

In other words, both objects and organisms are liable to get stuck in a state of inertia and it is difficult to dislodge them out of it in normal circumstances. And in the case of living organisms, inertia is also compounded by resistance to change.

Organisations too exhibit the same tendencies when it comes to systems, procedures, practices and methods. They become subject to a kind of Catch-22 situation: The fear of risks inherent in experimenting with the unfamiliar makes them continue with status quo.

But if they persist too long with what has stood them well in terms of smoothness of operations and the assured bottom line, they may allow themselves to be overtaken by new developments taking place out there, lose the market, fall by the wayside or disappear without trace.

Prof Christensen highlights this with reference to the dilemma that emergence of a new technology causes to organisations coasting along comfortably with an old one by making ‘incremental improvements' to it. Whereas disruptive innovation is “A process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and relentlessly moves up the market, eventually displacing established competitors.”


Organisations, however, shy away from it because it ‘lacks refinement, often has performance problems because it is new, appeals to a limited audience, and may not yet have a proven practical application.' even though ‘products based on disruptive technologies are typically cheaper to produce, simpler, smaller, better performing, and, frequently, more convenient to use.'

If you look around, you will notice that what applies to technologies applies to human beings in organisations in any sphere of human endeavour. For, almost every organisation throws up at some point persons from within it who seek to jolt it out of the established or conventional modes of carrying out its tasks.

In their magnificent obsession with what they deem to be a good cause, they are seen to be willing to question the authority of those running the organisation, constantly nagging and pestering them, even if this leads to their being regarded as trouble makers and thorns on the flesh of decision makers.

From the point of view of those in the organisation who are happy with the even tenor of their existence, the contrarians are disruptive elements wantonly rocking the boat in order to draw attention to themselves and even, perhaps, capture positions of authority. The Indian National Congress itself provides some good examples of disruptive individuals: Subhash Chandra Bose is the earliest name readily springing to mind who proved a constant headache to Gandhi and the Congress.

Rajaji, too, could be said to have been disruptive as when he advocated acceptance of the Muslim League's demand for Pakistan, and later, started the Swatantra Party and challenged Jawaharlal Nehru.

Ms Mamata Banerji and General V.K. Singh, in their own respective ways, are ‘disruptive influences', though their self-image may be that they are working, for the good of the UPA in the first case and the Armed Forces, in the second.

The response of organisations, when faced with disruptive persons, is either to buy their silence, or resort to direct or indirect threats of punitive action. Whereas the only response that is just right is to keep an open door for them, be receptive to their ideas and accommodate them in the organisation's policies and programmes to the maximum extent possible.

Published on April 01, 2012

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