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Multi-Dimensional Disruption

We definitely live in interesting times. As a consultant, I've long been familiar with the notion of business and product disruption. It's not a new concept. Companies have been cheerfully disrupting each other for years. It may be that the pace of disruption is accelerating, but the fact is that we have been disrupting each other since before the invention of the printing press and with the help of creative folks like Alexander Graham Bell. So while the pace may have changed, business disruption seems to be a pretty well understood phenomenon.

I'd probably doodle out a sketch like the following:

Then I would explain how the nature of disruption is accelerating. That the traditional product adoption curve is changing to more of a tidal wave. And that as a business you need to change how you try to manage the product adoption cycle in the face of disruption (these ideas come from "Big Bang Disruption" by Larry Downes and Paul Nunes). All of that makes sense given today's rapid product development cycles.

At least that's the way I would have characterized it if you had asked me about disruption a few months ago. Now, I'm coming to realize that there is a whole lot more disruption lurking in the world than I may have fully appreciated. With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, business is being radically disrupted as it is shut down due to the shelter-in-place orders. I think of a pandemic as a form of ecological disruption. COVID may have our full and undivided attention, but it is by no means unique and it will certainly not be the last pandemic to visit us. In fact there have been multiple potential pandemics that have emerged in the last 10 years or so, like H-1B, MERS, SARS and others. So there is every reason to expect that new pandemics will keep right on coming. This state of high alert may truly be the "new normal."

You may have noticed that I used the term "ecological" disruption. That's because pandemics are just one of a whole category of environmental or biological disasters that can cause significant disruptions to business and economies. The rising tides along sensitive shorelines in Louisiana and New York have already temporarily shut down commerce in those areas. Whether or not you believe in global warming is irrelevant (or even if we can do anything about it) - it's still going to impact business whether you like it or not. The glaciers are melting, the tides are rising, and they don't seem to be interested in our feelings on the matter.

Of course a lot depends on where you live. I live in the Pacific Northwest where we face a whole host of potential disruptions related to our environment: volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes - we've got the unholy trifecta of disasters that are absolutely guaranteed to happen here sooner or later. Any one of those is going to disrupt business in a significant way. And to be perfectly clear, by disrupt I mean businesses will go away and never come back. So there are a lot of potential disruptions that represent significant threats to our products and our businesses far beyond just our competition.

What about politics? The current parties, however you may feel about them, all seem to be hell bent on destroying our political system either actively or passively through incompetence. Normally, I might not worry about that (some things never seem to change). However, our businesses and products depend on a stable and well functioning political system for success. You can argue that our political system is a lot of things right now, but stable and well functioning probably isn't in the top ten adjectives of anyone's list that describes our system today. Right now I'm watching news coverage of rioting happening in the streets of nearly all the major cities in the US. So there is significant risk of political disruption impacting business.

And of course there are still more types of disruption. It seems as though our economic markets go through some sort of financial catastrophe about once every 10 years on average. I've lived through: the tech bubble in 2000, the housing recession in 2008, and the current depression (the worst in a century) right now. Each of those economic disruptions has destroyed trillions of dollars of business as they have rolled through our economy. To call them a disruption risks being accused of epic understatement.

My point is really that there is far more potential disruption in the world than I think I've ever fully appreciated before. Yes, there is competitive more competitive pressure than ever before. However, there is also ecological, political, and economic disruption lurking out there too. In fact, those additional forms of disruption may be far greater cause for concern than competitive disruption. After all, taxi cab drivers may have thought that Uber was their worst nightmare...that is until the pandemic came along and wiped them both out.

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