Welcome and unwelcome disruption

In a previous post I wrote about the experience of being a ‘professional outsider’ with a role to creatively and positively disrupt normal ways of working. This sparked a really interesting discussion on twitter with Mark Brown and Roxanne Persaud (both of whom I would say are kindred spirits in the disruption stakes). Mark made the point that the reaction that disruptors get to their suggestions is dependent on (in his words) ‘which gate you enter through’.

This got me thinking about the differences between being an invited outsider and an uninvited one.

I realise that at different times in my career the ideas I have suggested have been received very differently. Sometimes I know I’ve been seen as a pain in the neck (as anyone who knows me will attest) but on other occasions the response has been far more positive. What makes the difference? Is it all about the ideas or are there other factors at play?

It’s my firm view – and one that I am grateful to Mark for articulating and reminding me of – that the content (what is being suggested) is only part of the picture in determining how it is received and whether or not it is acted on. Though I’ve not conducted a randomised controlled trial on this to test my theory, I think that who the message comes from and their perceived status has a significant bearing on how that message is received.

I’ve worked with countless community activists that have had to ‘force’ their way in to discussions within organisations that – to a greater or lesser extent – see them as trouble makers and unwelcome disruptions. The questions they ask and the ideas they put forward are typically seen as difficult and more often than not strenuous efforts are made to marginalise them and their thinking. In my (sometimes) more privileged role as an ‘invited disruptor’, my interjections are – on the whole – regarded as equally awkward but less easy to dismiss. The disruption is not always welcome, but it is expected. This role is legitimised in a way that the community activist’s may not be, despite the fact that there’s no fundamental difference in what might be said.

I do think that perhaps sometimes there is a knowledge of an organisation, the context and – crucially – the language in which the messages are couched, that makes it easier for invited disruptors to be heard. One learns when and how to ‘push back’ against resistance. But there’s also an important learning point for organisations to think more carefully about how they respond to disruption. This is particularly pertinent with the growing expectations that user or community involvement matters to the quality of decision-making and delivery of outcomes.

If organisations are unable to respond in constructive ways to the disruption of outsiders the risks are that at very people they say they want to involve will quickly become disillusioned and walk away. It’s not easy though as a lack of institutional knowledge and access to some of the issues that may not have been disclosed makes it too easy to dismiss valid questions and suggestions.

Nonetheless if we fail to regard ‘uninvited disruption’ in an equitable way to ‘invited disruption’ then it will become increasingly difficult to achieve some of the – hopefully – common goals that are shared by activists and organisations.


One thought on “Welcome and unwelcome disruption

  1. Hi Toby, I’d be interested to hear what recommendations you would have for uninvited disrupters to get the voice heard in a way that might be more conducive to changing organisations. Are there general tips for constructive engagement, or is it always a case by case basis? Thx. Tom

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