There has been much written in recent years about disruptive technologies; on how to create them, how to adapt to them, and how to invest them. This week, we have a team starting on a project advising a large product/technical company in the Bay Area on growth strategy. One of the big challenges facing them is a potential disruptive technology in their industry. In actual fact, it’s not so much the technology itself that is disruptive as it is the process that it enables.

It’s an interesting project, made more interesting by the fact that most of the core engineering and technical staff, whose jobs would be changed by the use of this new technology, is very against it. It seems they don’t really believe it’s possible, or at least do not want to believe that their ‘artform’ jobs can be in some way systematized by a new technology and process. Progress is difficult to accept on many levels. Minds are often easy to change but it is employees’ hearts that are really difficult. Especially when your turf is being encroached on.

In some ways I’m surprised that when management gurus think about disruptive technologies, they really don’t seem to consider the effects on people or adoption rates. After all, the response to such a threat in many large companies is either a) lethargy, in terms of assigning some person or team to ‘evaluate’ it, which usually misses the mark or b) stone wall it. And this in turn affects adoption rates of a technology and process, which has consequences on a whole industry; either by giving new upstarts a route in or by dragging the whole industry down and bottle necking where could be progress.

But since I don’t want this blog to be all about problems, here’s a few pointers in dealing with this kind of change, especially with highly technical staff.

– Fight with data – do not make qualitative arguments to a ‘scientific’ mindset on why things will be better, quantitative conclusions will go further in convincing them

– Don’t try to go for concensus immediately. The time for debate and argument is crucial to highly experienced and educated employees. But don’t do so at the risk of getting coldfeet yourself

– Sometimes some top down leadership is required. Interventions by senior leaders or public statements on leadership opinions will go a long way to helping people feel more comfortable.

– Disruption doesn’t always mean job cuts. It does mean a change in role and/or the introduction of a new process. Often the change caused by making ‘creative’ scientists and engineers follow a more systematic process is the bigger obstacle than the disruption itself.

– Don’t forget the WIFM – with the people you want to keep most in the organization, be sure to make the ‘what’s in for me’ very personal. What would Joe do with better data in his area? How would Bill be able to make better decisions on his product line or interpret customer demands etc? Make the personal benefit clear to them

– Don’t forget to incent not incense – give good time for argument and debate, but don’t let the loop stay in the ‘analyze’ phase forever. It’s always a danger with highly educated professionals who can argue to the nth level deep to hypothetical scenarios. Instead remember to reward and incentivize the behaviors you do want.