Disruption, change and the professional outsider

I used to find it easy to answer the question ‘so, what do you do?’. I’d simply reply, I run a charity and that was generally met with ‘oh, how rewarding’….to which I always replied, ‘yes, it’s great, I get paid every month’. These days I find the question far harder to answer and generally revert to fairly meaningless terms like, social innovation, public benefit, social good and community stuff.

The usual labels we apply to our work, such as our job titles or the sector we work in, don’t really apply. That’s probably true of most consultants (though I don’t really consider myself a consultant, since some of my work is done as an employee, others on a freelance basis…) but I feel there’s something else going on.

I increasingly find myself working in sectors in which I am not an expert, surrounded by people who are immersed in the subject. I’ve written before about being a generalist and the benefits this can bring to the creative process. But it occurs to me that, in addition to being a generalist and dipping your toes into different subjects, there’s something about the role of being an ‘outsider’ which is an increasing part of my work.


I work in local government – and I am an employee of a local authority – but I don’t really feel I am ‘from local government’ and nor do I think my colleagues in the council regard me as such. My role is to be an outsider on the inside. To question why we do things in a certain way and wonder whether there might be a different way.

It’s the same with my work with charities. Though I do feel more ‘of the sector’ than with local government, I find myself increasingly offer opinion on how local authorities and others might perceive things or explaining how the opaque workings of the public sector might relate (or not).

I’m not a techie or a developer, though I consider myself an open data advocate.

I’m not an educationalist, but I have helped establish a school.

I’m a long way from being an academic or a researcher, but I do work with academics and researchers and often find myself among them discussing it.

I’m not a planner nor am I an architect, but I’ve often found myself talking to build environment professionals about the planning system and how to engage communities in it.

In fact it’s the fact that I am not immersed in these disciplines or intimately familiar with the way things tend to be done that allows me to ask stupid questions, to challenge orthodoxy and to constantly ask ‘is this the best way it can be done?’

I am, I suppose, a professional outsider, paid to creatively disrupt traditional ways of working and established norms.

If we are in the business of change – and that is one of the few common characteristics of what I do – then disruption is inevitable. Disruption is what happens when we change things.

Where does the disruption come from?

Of course that will vary from setting to setting and it’s probably more common to come from within. Some people are comfortable challenging traditional behaviour from within their own organisations (in fact I’ve worked with some remarkable people who thrive on it). Some people are tasked with change, and so have disruption written into their roles (though generally not in any explicit way).

But sometimes that disruption comes from the outside. Whether it’s a service user, a funder, a politician or some other stakeholder, the challenge to our normal ways of working can be profound. And sometimes the disruption is deliberately invited in – whether that’s asking someone to come and talk, circulating a provocative article or talk you’ve come across, or paying someone to work with you to inject some creative disruption.

The current economic context, technological advances and socio-political drivers are all increasing the pace and need for change in the public, private and not for profit sectors. If doing things differently requires some sort of disruption, are we seeing a growing realisation that the outsider is an increasingly important part of our organisational requirements?

Or maybe it’s just me…


4 thoughts on “Disruption, change and the professional outsider

  1. Very open and frank article Toby. Is there also a sense that those people get working “on the inside” who invite you in do so because you’re an outsider and can see things with fresh eyes, but also that you’re as passionate and committed as them to a common cause, whether that’s on the environment, building community, etc?

    I often find that you can sense genuine collaboration where you forget which organisation the people round a table are representing (and where people talk about what they as individuals can contribute and take responsibility for).

  2. Pingback: Disruption, change and the professional outsider | Collaborate

  3. Pingback: Stay radical – reflections on the Sheila McKechnie Foundation awards | tobyblume

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