Burkhard Gnärig

21 July, 2015

Dealing with Disruption

"It won't happen to us" - corporate sector

In my book The Hedgehog and the Beetle I point to the many industries that had looked at potential disruption and decided “it won’t happen to us” – telephone utilities, stockbrokers, record companies, bookstores, travel agencies and retailers. To their surprise it happened to them, and for many well established, highly successful companies this meant bankruptcy.

The good news for civil society organisations (CSOs) is: they will hardly go bankrupt. The bad news is: if they ignore disruption they may die a very slow death, gradually fading away. When raising this threat with colleagues from other CSOs I usually come across two types of reaction. One reaction accepts my arguments and either tells me what their organisation is doing about disruption or asks me what they should do. The other reaction follows the “it won’t happen to us” argument and explains that their organisation has been successful for such a long time and that they don’t see a reason why this should change.

I sincerely hope that history will prove the second line of argument right. But I am not so sure. There are too many indicators out there which point towards a transformative change of our sector, a change which cannot be mastered with traditional approaches and a “business as usual” mindset. In my book I specifically identify three major disruptors:

– Political disruption, which has become much more dramatic and widespread recently with governments around the world from Uganda to Cambodia, from Russia to India, and from Finland to the USA restricting CSOs’ space for action and obstructing their funding sources.

– Technological disruption, specifically disintermediation through the Internet affects both service delivery and campaigning by CSOs. In one of my earlier posts, Can Disintermediation Happen? I wrote about the likeliness of disruption coming from this angle.

– Planetary disruption, which, due to humans over-exploiting the resources of the earth and destroying the basis for a decent and peaceful existence for future generations, means that CSOs will find it harder, if not impossible, to achieve their missions.

From where I sit all three of these disruptions have been taking shape with increasing speed and impact. However, nobody can be certain whether disruption will happen to our sector or not, and, for the time being, we don’t have to resolve the question whether “it will happen to us” or not: we will find out eventually. The more important question is: what do we do in a situation where we cannot be sure whether disruption will affect us?

I suggest that we answer this question using one of the principles of wise management: if you can see a major risk which might affect your organisation you try to explore and manage that risk. And this principle should unite the ones who see disruption coming and those who doubt that it will come: neither can be sure whether disruption will occur or whether it will spare our sector. Therefore it makes sense for both camps to take appropriate precautions, putting their organisations in a position where they can navigate the threats and exploit the opportunities that disruption entails.

Today, everybody who works in our sector should think about emerging disruption and how we can benefit rather than suffer from it. Here at the International Civil Society Centre we prepare for disruption at three levels:

– We try to find ways to spot disruption early so that we have time to prepare for navigating it;

– We aim to embrace disruption, to see it as an opportunity rather than a threat, because we believe that a positive mindset will help us to better handle disruption and

– We develop practical concepts for managing disruption once it strikes. For instance: In September we will conduct an innovation lab with the aim of developing strategies and tools together with changemakers from civil society organisations around the world. If you are interested in participating you can learn more and register here.

What is your perspective on disruption and what do you think we should do about it?

  1. Toby Porter22 July, 2015

    A few weeks back, in early July, I had the pleasure to introduce Burkhard to the leadership team in the London Secretariat of HelpAge International. Burkhard had kindly agreed to present the key ideas and conclusions from the Hedgehog and the Beetle, which I had read the month before and hugely enjoyed.
    Sketching out my brief words of introduction on the train into London from Oxford that morning, I looked two things up on the internet so as to be sure I would be accurate with my words of welcome. Firstly, to check which year he had founded the International Civil Society Centre, and second, to look up an online definition of “critical friend”.
    This is what google gave me– “Someone who is encouraging and supportive, but who also provides honest and often candid feedback that may be uncomfortable or difficult to hear. In short, a critical friend is someone who agrees to speak truthfully, but constructively, about weaknesses, problems, and emotionally charged issues”.
    A few hours later, as I watched this kind and courteous man first charm my HelpAge colleagues, and then simultaneously excite and unsettle them with the directness and the challenge of his ideas, I really thought that these two words are perfect to describe Burkhard’s relationship and importance to our sector, and our organisations.

    I personally found the book excellent, written with an engaging and accessible writing style that draws people in. “Choosing Influence over control” was to me the highlight in terms of chapters, but I thought the book began very strongly as well, with “Facing Disruption”. There are quite a few topics where it offers me as a reader some well-judged and highly relevant insights into areas we are already thinking about in HelpAge International (disintermediation in general / the importance of non-branded campaigning platforms / our planned transition from being an “organisation for older people” to, hopefully, an “organisation of older people”)
    I liked and agree with him that the dreaded “silo” mentality we all recognise in our organisations needs cultural and not just structural fixes. In particular (I may be biased, as HelpAge International is one of the “tiddlers” in financial terms among the civil society organisations that are co-owners of the ICSC), I agreed and strongly support with his argument that Board and Executive leadership in our sector need better and more visible metrics to measure their mission impact. The predominance of financial (ie growth) metrics in Board room discussions and CEO appraisals are distorting and have not been positive for the sector.

    His sections on change management are very good, and often very funny. Which charity executive would not simultaneously smile and wince when reading Burkhard’s ironic observation that the same organisations whose missions are invariably overtly constructed around the need for massive, widespread, fundamental change can often be conservative, ponderous and anxious about even quite minor internal change processes. Change is simultaneously an exciting and intoxicating idea in our mission statements and 5 year plans, and yet seems to conjure up images of a weary reproach to disgruntled staff and stale executives within our own offices!

    There were also some ideas in the book that were new to me and which immediately resonated, such as the long-term threat within the professionalization paradigm of a serious disconnect between the biggest charities and the volunteers, that have been so important to the values and the foundations of the organisations in question. I liked and learned from the hypothesis that joint ventures or independent “units” within an organisation could deliver change faster and better than “traditional” change management approaches or structures. Indeed, this made me think very differently about how we might structure a new project we hope to run in the autumn. I will remember (and share) how he writes about accountability from page 212 (that begins, In absence of profit and loss etc), and anyone who doesn’t have time to read the whole book might want to go straight there.

    The main area where I thought his book might have gone further, would have been to explore the potential new technology and communication brings for trust to be undermined in traditional agencies and ways of working.

    Most of the book’s thinking about technology and bringing people closer seemed premised on an essential positive “story” and transaction, ie giving people new ways to interact and to give. But what about the potential for the image of the big ICSOs to be individually or collectively hugely damaged by the way that social media can bring images / stories of scandal / disappointment / lack of accountability to a hugely greater audience, much faster etc.

    Since the Joint Evaluation to the response to the Rwanda crisis in the mid 90’s, the sector has become used to some challenging observations from professional, often system-wide evaluations, appearing every few years, and generating intense, uncomfortable but brief media interest. We saw this again after the Tsunami DEC evaluation – the problems in many tsunami programmes were already extremely widely acknowledged within the sector, particularly the construction projects, but the massive performance and accountability concerns only became a “public story” at intervals such as when the DEC evaluation was published, or when the Sunday Times ran a story.

    Sadly, it seems that many of these system-wide performance issues remain, particularly for the best-funded responses, where arguably aid agencies are still too easily pulled away from their expertise in well-intentioned, misguided but Board-sanctioned efforts to spend the incredible volume of funds raised for the largest federations or families. The unforeseen consequence of success, with the large federations all with a presence in so many donor markets, supporting a single delivery entity, leading to country implementation budgets of a size none of us would have imagined were possible even 15 years ago.

    I think technological change will make real-time scrutiny of “big charity” performance in disaster response much more commonplace, much more “real time”. I am surprised it has not happened faster, but you wonder how much longer the sector can endure this constant apparent series of bad news stories – just in the last few weeks, we have seen a resurfacing of the house building programme attempted by the American Red Cross in Haiti. We have seen sustained media coverage, and public disquiet, about some telephone fundraising operations in the UK.

    Last month, there was a Time expose from the Ebola-affected region, depicting the frontline health workers in the Ministry of Health in Sierra Leone and Liberia. These women and men have confronted over more than a year some of the highest risk individual humanitarians have ever had to face, and, if the journalist is right, a great many of them have yet to receive even one of their $100 monthly “danger money” bonus payments to their meagre salaries. This in an overall operation that has apparently received $7bn into the “top” of the operations.


    I think that one of the main disruptions that social media and citizen journalism will bring to the sector is that these kind of problems will be seen more often, more real-time, and with a greater risk of going viral. We have seen this quickly drive massive, disruptive change to individuals and organisations – in politics, in business, and with public figures, and surely it’s only a matter of time before we see this unravel an organisation in our sector, fairly or unfairly.

    Who out there would be comfortable seeing how much money went on NGO head office overheads for the organisations who worked on the ground in Sierra Leone or Liberia, however valiant their on-ground efforts? Or how much money went on business class airfares for United Nations staff flying between New York and West Africa. Because in both cases, it was almost certainly a very great many multiples of the total figure that found its way to those frontline health workers. Which was almost nothing, if Time magazine are correct.

    If disruption changes that, and accelerates the system-wide reform we all seem to want to see, and if this book and others like it accelerate those changes, let’s bring it on…..

    Toby Porter

    (Toby is CEO of HelpAge International, but leaves these comments in a personal capacity)

    1. Rhianon Bader3 August, 2015

      Hi Toby,
      Thanks for joining the discussion. Your point about disaster coverage scrutiny becoming more “real-time” was very interesting. Regarding your point about the potential negative effects of technology on trust and accountability, check out the newest blog by the head of the INGO Accountability Charter, which outlines a new project by a group of INGOs to address this issue: http://disrupt-and-innovate.org/digital-accountability/

      Rhianon (Communications Coordinator, Disrupt&Innovate)

  2. Burkhard Gnärig22 July, 2015


    Many thanks for your positive remarks about my book. I feel very honored. And yes, there are many fields where the book should be more courageous and go more into the depth of things – your comments on how we run humanitarian intervention being just one example. I very much agree with your observations and look forward to working together with you and other leaders to change our sector.


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