The Practice of Disruption

Paul Heagen Uncategorized Leave a Comment

By all accounts, Mickey Drexler was a genius.

He leveraged an uncanny, prescient sense of consumer tastes in the fashion industry to built an empire of household name brand retailers — The Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy and, most recently, J.Crew.

A demi-god in the retail fashion biz, Mickey Drexler had it. He got it. 

Except there’s one thing, he now admits, he did not get.

The Internet.

Mickey Drexler, now 72 and still chairman and CEO of J.Crew, ruminates in a recent WSJ article that he totally missed how on-line merchandising would fundamentally disrupt his entire business model. Everything that had served him brilliantly for decades was totally dismantled by the tectonic shift that is on-line marketing.

The mistake here for anyone is to discount this as simply another tragic chapter in the demise of the shopping mall retail store. The more universal threat is an isolation syndrome that fails to pick up quickly enough just how much technology (and the new social construct it fosters) is driving and shaping market behavior.

On a larger level, it is my contention that the traditional, foundational strength of corporations — the ability to aggregate capital, talent, ideas, and market presence — can all be substituted to a large degree in our boundary-less Web-based world.

It may be one of the new tenets of leadership to recognize you are not in control. You can’t know everything, and most everything you learned in business school is likely out of date.

Business strategies today have to assume someone can leapfrog you quickly, that someone can penetrate your market cheaper than you built it, that competing products can be developed and launched seemingly overnight, that people are having conversations and trading insights into their needs and interests, and you may not be part of it.

What does that portend for our understanding of what executive leadership is today?

Sure, there are some qualities of leadership that have proven durable amid myriad changes in the world, but organizations would be well-served to upend their often banal checklists in favor of an entirely new view of what it takes to lead in a world that is hyper-connected, independent of institutional influence, able to morph and reshape itself at will and on a whim, and is exerting more influence on the business world than business itself.

It is not — as some hallowed leadership assessment define it — just the ability to manage change.

It is the willingness to create change with strategic intent, to be personally restless with rhythm and process, to create some managed chaos in the enterprise. Being a disruption was always a mark against you in years past; now it is at a premium.

If you want to disrupt your market, you first need to disrupt your own business. To disrupt your business, you first need to disrupt yourself.

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