Disruptions: Surviving And Succeeding In A Disruptive World

by Patrick Liew on October 12, 2016

There was an evening scene that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.

A living room in a resort in Langkawi, Malaysia. Six of us were sitting around a table and deep in a discussion.

There were looks of despair, fear and helplessness – three potent emotions that when mixed together would drive anyone down an emotional spiral.

Prior to that moment, I had given everybody a summary of our business’s strategic and financial positions.

The prognosis was not good. In fact, my conclusion was that we had come to the end of the road.

Some years before that painful evening, we had founded a technology company during the dot-com boom.

At the initial stage, our start-up had big dreams, great promises and you could say, staggering achievements too.

Within a short period, we had thousands of clients paying us a decent fee. They came from more than ten countries.

That achievement was unprecedented and almost record-breaking.

Most dot-com companies were providing freebies while chasing eye balls. They also never quite expanded beyond their home and neighbouring countries.

We were certainly on a roll. It seemed like nothing could stop our technological juggernaut.

Then came the dot-com crash in 2001. By then, we had many copycats.

Meanwhile, there was a wave of disruptive innovations that turned our “radical innovation” into a normal proposition.

We were facing multiple disruptions on many fronts and throughout the value chain.

There were no more road ahead of us.

We were facing untamed jungles and they were looming over us in a hostile way.

That night, there wasn’t even a single star on sight to guide us forward.

After my short message, there was a deep silence. It was like an avalanche had suddenly buried us up to our neck with snow.

The initial coldness was gradually biting deeper and deeper into our being.

After what seemed like ages, I finally broke the silence.

“We have no other choice s. So far, we have invested more than $4 million into the company.

“We can’t go on pouring money into a deep dark well. Let’s close the company.”

The proverbial guillotine was released.

In this case, our life was not taken away in a split of a moment.

It was worse.

We felt like our baby was forcibly taken from us and the sharp blade had cut through our hearts.

After that meeting, you could imagine how all of us had walked out of the door and into the darkness of the night.

What was more painful was that we were gradually being swallowed by the darkness in our spirit.

The next few days, I was a tormented soul.

I couldn’t get my brain to face my heart or for that matter, any other part of my being.

Shortly after, my team and I decided to fight back. We believed that we have many more fights left inside us.

We decided not to run away from disruptive forces. Instead, we would take them by the horns.

We would beat our way through hostile jungles until we can build a bigger and better road to freedom.

Long story short, our company went on to recover out losses. We stopped the bleeding and became one of the most profitable dot-com companies.

We eventually became the seventh fastest growing company in the Asia Pacific region according to Deloitte & Touché in 2005.

Through that amazing turnaround experience, we learned deeply about disruption and how to respond to it.

In the new world of disorder, disruption is not just a warning but a way of business and life.

Your work, operation and business can be disrupted, devalued and disintegrated – anytime.

As they say, what has helped you to achieve success till now may not help you to be successful in the future.

In fact, past successes may have a tendency to drive you to preserve status quo. They can prevent you from reviewing, redesigning and rebuilding your operational models.

Metaphorically speaking, if you travel on the same road, you’ll always reach the same destination.

To reach a better destination, you need to improve the road, find a better road, or develop your own road to the future.

While you cannot predict and prevent disruptions, you should not resign yourself to apathy, complacency and passiveness.

You can proactively develop appropriate model, culture and condition to pioneer, respond to, and leverage on disruption to propel yourself to the next level of growth.

Remember, if you don’t change the changes that are around you, these changes may eventually change you for the worst.

Let me suggest 10 ways to future-proof yourself and your business.

1. Create your own future.

Professor C.K. Prahalad studied companies that remained in the Fortune 500 list for more than 50 years. He found out that all these companies look forward, not backward.
Although the future cannot be predicted with certainty and you need to expect the unexpected, this does not mean you cannot plan to stay ahead of the change curve.
Whether the future is an extrapolation of the past or a series of discontinuities, you can be certain it must begin from somewhere.
You can and should study and interpret trends, evaluate new and emerging developments, and think systematically about the future.
By doing so, you can better exploit winds of change for your profit, advantage and growth.

2. Reflect to redesign your future.

Critical self-reflection is a platform for learning, improving and getting better results.

For instance, as you face a disruptive future, the questions that beg to be answered are:

– How can you ensure that your people are fully aware of and are prepared to respond to the increasing level of unpredictability and change?

– How can you future-proof your people by ensuring they have the right mindset, knowledge, skills, and behaviour to survive and succeed in an ever-changing and fast-moving world?

– How can you develop the culture, commitment, capacity and competence for monitoring disruptive forces and re-positioning yourself to leverage on disruptive forces?

– How can you reengineer your infrastructures, models, systems and other resources to develop talents and initiatives that will pioneer disruptive changes and expand your space and influence in the global economy?

The quality of your performance and achievement is very much dependent on the quantity of quality questions you ask yourself and how you respond to these questions.

3. Change yourself to change the future.

Before you can change your work, business and the environment, you need to change yourself.

If you cannot lead and manage your life, it’s unlikely you can lead and manage your team to influence the future.

The test of a winner is how you can remove impediments to positive changes so that you can adapt to and influence new realities.

Very often, the greatest obstacle to change is not out there but within yourself.

To capitalise on the future, see change not as a problem but as an opportunity to advance worthwhile pursuits.

As the shelf life of operational models and advantages are shortening, be committed to anticipate, embrace and exploit the kaleidoscopic pace of change.

Be willing to discipline yourself to let go of the past and creatively reinvent your business model so as to run your business in a better, faster and cheaper way.

While others are thinking about what’s next, research possible scenarios on what’s coming after “what’s next.”

Maintain a curious mind to want to know the unknown and to discover the undiscovered.
Pursue what’s ahead of the curve and around the bend to stay above and ahead of the crowd.

Proactively prepare yourself for all plausible scenarios.

Shift from being a custodian of current realities to being a creator of new possibilities.

Recreate yourself rigorously and relentlessly so as to be future-ready and to capitalise on the future.

4. Strengthen self-efficacy to seize the future.

Research has shown that self-efficacy- the belief in one’s ability to learn or accomplish a task at a desired level, is a key to being successful. It also has a major influence on motivation, well-being and personal achievement.

Self-efficacy is shaped by confidence and competence in performing a task. It’s determined by experience in learning and improving yourself.

In addition, self-efficacy depends on physiological and emotional states. It’s also influenced by social connections and relationships.

Therefore, invest in your people and strengthen their self-efficacies. Help them develop confidence, capacity and capability to achieve success.

Inspire them to have the courage to imagine and articulate future scenarios and fight for a desired future.

The future does not have to be an unchangeable reality. The future can be a controllable possibility.

They don’t have to be passive consumers of the future but be active contributors to its development.

When they are cautiously optimistic about the business and its desired outcomes, they are in a better position to achieve better results.

They can make a difference to how they live and thrive in the disruptive future.

5. Retool to develop future-ready business.

It’s sad that after completing formal education, many people have not read a single academic journal or attend another educational programme.

Without realizing it, they are moving towards being irrelevant and redundant in workplaces.

To be future-ready, your team cannot just be a recipient and distributor of third-party knowledge.

They should also research, generate, and utilise new and better knowledge to make necessary changes to the business.

Therefore, help your team develop a passion for learning and the ability to learn how to learn.

Pursue mastery of fluid intelligence and a range of meta-skills.

These are skills that are needed in a wide range of environments.

They can also help to further develop new knowledge and expertise.

Meta-skills include divergent, critical and abstract thinking skills, creativity and innovation skills, leadership skills, emotional and cultural intelligence skills, financial literacy skills, self-directed learning skills, and persuasion skills.

Transform your people from being an “I-Shaped” to being a “T-Shaped” knowledge-based intrapreneurs.

In other words, they cannot just focus on a particular field of expertise, they need to have a global mindset and the ability to acquire a wide range of knowledge and expertise.

By being open, inquisitive and versatile, they’ll have more dots in their minds and more ways to connect them to achieve radical breakthroughs. They’ll also be able to make better informed decisions.

In the new economy, learning has to become a vital, integral and habitual part of life.

6. Develop resilience to challenge the future.

Disruption by definition of the word indicates that it’s an unexpected development.

Besides man-made turbulences, there’ll be natural crises that may also have an impact on current and future operations.

While you may not be able to predict disruptions, you can develop an ever-improving business model.

Build a more resilient organisation in response to evolving knowledge, competence and practice.

Forge an adaptable, able and agile culture and strengthen tenacity to resolve problems and handle failures.

Besides being sensitive and responsive to the changing environment, encourage your people to take calculated risks to pioneer new frontiers.

Through determination, discipline, grit, and resilience, they can turn a disruptor into an enabler and capitalise on silver lining in every storm. They can leverage on disruption for stronger growth.

7. Build a diverse team for a better future.

Research has shown that a diverse team can help develop better ideas, offerings and results.

When you work with people that have different experiences, strengths and expertise, they can help you see new perspectives, contribute to creative thought processes, and value-add to the business and its outcomes.

However, the tendency is for you to attract and retain a certain type of talents because they are similar to you and you are comfortable working with them.

To achieve best practices, become what Warren Bennis had called – “a leader of leaders.”
Position yourself as a network manager, leading and harnessing resources of the brightest and most talented people to be a problem-solvers and solution-providers.
In the words of Rosabeth Moss Kanter, you need to be constantly “pooling, allying and linking” different organisations, groups and free agents to help you move up the learning curve and food chain.
As you don’t have monopoly of the best ideas, you may have to change from a command-and-control style of leader to being a catalyst, coach and cheerleader for your team so as to bring out the best from them.
In an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, know how to connect and communicate with others in the global community.
Work with people who subscribe to different creeds and customs and are from a different culture, community, and country.
Develop cultural intelligence and interpersonal skills to collaborate with them and co-create solutions to resolve current as well as future challenges.
In the new economy, being able to connect, cooperate and collaborate with others and being competent in co-creating solutions in the digital space will be a crucial part of your survival and success kit.

8. Set up intelligence outposts and stay abreast of future trends.

In a fast-changing world, you need to set up environmental scanning and intelligence-gathering systems on a global basis.

Build data analytical system that will help you harness information, analyse economic and business trends, and evaluate impact of new and emerging developments and opportunities.

These systems can offer you first-mover options to move up the food and value chain.

Become a market maker rather than a price taker.

In addition, put your fingers on the technological pulse. Don’t delegate understanding and leveraging of technology to any particular individual or group.

You should know how to acquire, deploy, and manage the latest proven technology for ongoing improvements and results.

9. Capitalise on business gaps in the disruptive future.

Disruptive forces, including robots, drones, Internet of things, artificial intelligence-driven devices and other innovations may eventually take over many of your businesses and work.

However, they may not be able to perform all the tasks, including tasks that revolve around leadership, abstract thinking, aesthetic, emotive, personalised, and persuasion factors.

Develop and leverage on intelligences that these disruptive forces may not have, including moral intelligence, creative and innovative intelligence, intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence, and intelligence for leveraging technology.

Proactively identify gaps that cannot be fulfilled or be adequately fulfilled by disruptive forces and value-add on these gaps to have more stable, secure and sustainable business, work and contribution.

Provide outstanding customer service by integrating the best of technology and heart-warming services. The “high tech and high touch” combination and synergy will position you to stay ahead of the crowd.

Be mindful that for every business and operation that is being disrupted, new jobs and opportunities will be created.

For instance, while technology can generate information, there’s still a need to make sense of the volume, variety and velocity of information generated.

The new opportunities that are being created as a result of disruption may have higher value-addition and are more lucrative and fulfilling.

10. Inject innovation every step of the way to the future.

In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, you need to continue to improve your business model while responding positively to disruptive forces.

To do that, put innovation at the core of your business model, culture and operation.

Position your people to be a pioneer of change and work on changing the business and environment for the better.

There are essentially three ways to develop innovations.

First, develop innovations in-house. For example, set up a full-time research and development team, a part-time project team, crowdsource ideas, or outsource part or all of the innovations to external contractors.

Second, innovate together with external parties through, for example, establishing strategic alliances, cross licensing or joint ventures.

Third, acquire innovations from external parties, including outright purchase of the intellectual property or use of the innovation on a leasing basis.

Remember, the best way to start becoming creative is to start creating; to be innovative, innovate.

The best place and time to start being innovative is where you are and right now.

In conclusion, as you come to grips with disruptive forces, bear in mind that these forces don’t have to be a pitfall, they can be a platform for shaping your next phase of prosperity and progress.

How you respond to these forces can strengthen your future growth.

You need to disrupt yourself and become the disruptor before you become disrupted by external forces.

The future is up for grabs. Seize your destiny now.

That was an evening scene that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.


I hope this message will find a place in your heart.

By the way, I have also recorded other reflections.

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