This blog post is adapted from my 2013 article Finding Common Ground: Harnessing Disruption for the Good of the Service, which is specifically about the U.S. military. This version generalizes to a broader audience.
In any large organization, it is common to find tension between Guardians and Disruptors.
Guardians have been around for a while and grew up with the organization. They may be in positions of leadership, serve in middle management, or work in the organization’s support infrastrucure. They helped create and now maintain the culture and processes on which the organization runs. Because they have been around for a long time, the organization’s promotion system has repeatedly selected them for continued employment or service. These are the folks who, by and large, are content with the system as it exists today.
The Disruptors come to the organization with fresh eyes. They are typically more junior, though not always. They might have diverse experiences in different kinds of organizations. Almost immediately upon their entry into an organization, they identify inefficiencies and points of frustration. This is especially true if they have experience in smaller, more nimble teams.
These two camps are only generalizations and do not necessarily correlate to age. Any organization will also have dynamic, innovative senior leaders and juniors who are happy with the status quo. Every organization is different, but every organization has groups that embody the forces of conservatism and change. You can ask yourself who embodies these forces in your organization.
The tension between Guardians and Disruptors is especially strong in heavy bureaucracies like government. The U.S. military, for example, is one of the largest and most ossified bureaucracies in the world. Because it does not usually permit lateral transfers and uses an up-or-out promotion system, the promotion system consistently rewards compliant, conservative behavior over the course of a career. Most innovative junior leaders find the bureaucracy stifling, and many leave the service at their first opportunity. Getting good data on this is difficult, and debates about talent management quickly get emotional.
Relations between Guardians and Disruptors can quickly become adversarial. Guardians see these uppity newcomers as naive, reckless, and experienced. They often feel like the Disruptors do not appreciate their experience or hard-won wisdom, or the reasons the system is built this way.
Disruptors, on the other hand, feel brushed aside. They seethe at a stagnant culture that refuses to reform.
Despite the latent tension between these two groups, both bring something valuable to an organization, and it is essential that they learn to work together. This article offers some principles for how they can do so.
Finding Common Ground
The most passionate members of both groups care about the organization’s success. They want to achieve its goals, create value for customers and stakeholders, properly manage risk, and ensure the organizaton’s continued health and longevity. That is the common ground on which the two camps can build.
Guardians and Disruptors approach these goals from different perspectives, each of which has its strengths and weaknesses. Disruptors are acutely aware of the organization’s shortcomings, and they have the passion and idealism to strive for positive change. They bring fresh, outside perspective that can renew the organization and help it adapt to new challenges. At the same time, their idealism, inexperience, and limited perspective can lead them to push change too quickly or in ways that are ultimately unproductive.
Guardians are no less committed to the mission and to organizational excellence, but they have a greater sense of the constraints that make change difficult. They have a realistic sense of what is possible and what is not, and have learned through experience how to effectively translate ideas into action. They also are likely to foresee second and third-order effects of change that Disruptors might be blind to. These traits naturally make Guardians more conservative and skeptical of change. This can mitigate risk, but it can also needlessly obstruct necessary reform. The Guardians naturally have a bias for the traditional and familiar, and can be out of touch with the changing dynamics of the world around them.
Employees of all ranks should strive to build organizations that embrace the positive characteristics of each group. This requires identifying the common ground on which they stand: equipping their organizations to succeed and thrive in a dynamic world. Adaptive organizations must intentionally cultivate dialog between Guardians and Disruptors. Both groups must take the others’ concerns seriously, and both must be prepared to listen and learn.
Advice for Disruptors
Disruptors who want to create change have a huge learning curve ahead of them. Leading change is hard. New employees who want to create positive results—and not just be squeaky wheels—must learn how to translate ideas into action for the good of their organization. That means understanding themselves, their organization and its mission, and how to effectively communicate and implement new ideas. Below are a few pointers.
- The goal is persuasion. Are you just making a statement, or are you trying to create positive change? If you’re making a statement, rant all you want. You’ll feel better (maybe) and that will be the end of it (and of your credibility). But if you’re actually trying to create real change, you must learn how to persuade. You probably aren’t important enough to create change by yourself, so you must persuade those who are. That principle should guide your efforts.
- Understand the problem. Before you spend your precious capital tackling a problem, research why that problem exists. Is there a rationale behind the status quo? Why hasn’t this been addressed already? There is a good chance your bosses are aware of the problem but are constrained, perhaps by their own bosses, by regulation, or by stakeholder politics. Some problems you might be powerless to change; it’s probably a good idea to move on. In other cases, you can identify who is responsible for the constraints—and who you need to persuade.
- Don’t whine. Nothing will destroy your credibility faster. Busy leaders want employees who can propose solutions and do what it takes to implement them; all whiners do is sap energy and poison attitudes while leaving the hard work to others.
- Take yourself out of it. Stick to facts. Strip away emotion. Learn from others so you can reach beyond your own experience. You can sparingly use personal vignettes, but show Guardians that this is about the organization and not about you.
- Be respectful. You won’t go far in persuading Guardians if you insult them.
- Build a reputation for commitment and competence. As much as you’d like to think that your ideas stand on their own merit, the messenger matters. Guardians will listen to you if you have a proven track record. If your reputation is poor, your ideas probably don’t stand a chance.
- Learn to communicate. To persuade Guardians, you must package your idea well. Learn to write. Learn to speak. Arrange demonstrations. If you must, use PowerPoint. Do whatever it takes to communicate your ideas to those who can implement them.
- Edit down. Your superiors are busy, and your proposal is one of twenty things that will cross their desk that morning. Be succinct. Present your ideas clearly, up front. Your boss will not read twenty rambling, unfocused pages; there are no exceptions.
- Use official channels–at first. Official channels sometimes don’t work; they can be clogged and unresponsive. However, sometimes they do work, and they are in place for a reason. You owe it to your organization to try them. If the system works, excellent. If not, then you can consider other avenues to advance your idea.
- Enlist allies. Somebody out there–in your own team or elsewhere–shares your passion and stands to benefit from your proposed changes. Find those people. Build on your shared interests. Hash out ideas together. Pool resources and attack the problem from every possible direction.
- Don’t worry about credit. It might be your idea, but it will probably pass through countless hands and layers of supervision before it sees the light of day. Be okay with that. Be generous in sharing credit, and be prepared for the possibility that you won’t get credit at all.
Advice for Guardians
Guardians have responsibilities of their own, particularly if they are in leadership roles. First they must recognize the depth and breadth of frustration that can exist in a large bureaucracy. Dissatisfaction may be rampant and cannot be shrugged off. If Guardians genuinely care about organizational excellence, they should not casually accept the exodus of any talent. If processes can be improved, they should be improved. If they can’t, leaders must explain why. Either way, leaders must lead and communicate.
Guardians must also recognize that creative, innovative employees are an asset. Opinionated employees do not usually voice their opinions because they want to be troublesome; they speak up because they care. Their frustration is a motivating force that, properly harnessed, will lead them to make positive contributions to improving the organization. If not properly channeled, that same frustration will simply embitter them. Leaders must understand that they have a significant role in determining which outcome will occur. The following principles can help leaders bring out the best in their bright junior employees.
- Recognize the value of Disruptors. They might take your time and energy, but they are among your most precious resources. They want to do good for you and for the organization. Find ways to help them do it. Everybody will win.
- Get involved in the conversation. Your organization probably has forums where your Disruptors gather to talk, brainstorm, and plan. These might be online chat tools, in-person meetings, or simply water cooler conversations. If you are not already, get involved! Your employees will gladly help you find an inroad.
- Take the initiative. Disruptors often take the lead when they see the need for reform. Do not settle for that. Lead! Think, write, and speak about how your motivated employees can constructively channel their energy. Show them that you value what they can offer.
- Bear with inexperience. Your Disruptors are still learning the difficult art of creating change in a vast bureaucracy. Their communication skills will vary, and they are drawing on limited experience. They will make mistakes. They will propose bad ideas, and their tone will sometimes offend you. Hold them accountable, but be patient. Remember, there is talent and passion latent beneath that inexperience. You want to draw it out and put it to work for you.
- Mentor Disruptors. You are a leader; one of your most important duties is to help subordinates learn and grow. Teach them how to communicate and how to create change. Show them how they can channel all their frustrations into something positive. Counsel them when they make mistakes.
- Ensure your formal channels are open. When ideas languish and die in formal channels, it reinforces the message that leaders don’t care. Disruptors will be tempted to seek alternative means of advocating ideas, which can be dangerous for everybody. If you want your Disruptors to work within the system, ensure your system works.
- Give feedback on every idea. Your Disruptors will often bring forward ideas that are impractical, unworkable, or just plain lousy. They won’t understand the problem or constraints; they will be blind to second or third order effects; you will anticipate problems that they don’t. Instead of killing the idea without explanation, take the time to discuss your reasoning. Affirm their commitment to work for positive change. If the idea can be improved or altered, give them direction.
- Reward innovation at your level. Organizations vary in their ability to reward creativity, innovation, and unique skill sets. If your organization undervalues innovation, do not let that stop you from rewarding innovation at your own level. Be generous with verbal praise. Highlight unique accomplishments. Create awards within your own team, if appropriate. Do whatever is within your power to show that you value creativity and innovation.
- Take a chance. Many of the ideas your Disruptors bring forward really will be good ones. Don’t reflexively shoot them down. If an idea might work, try it. Your organization will be better if it works. If it doesn’t, you and your employee will learn something and you will have demonstrated trust in your people. It is also possible that the experiment will lead to a better, revised idea.
Healthy organizations draw on diverse workforces to understand all sides of important issues. They provide healthy processes for idea generation, discussion, debate, and decision-making. One of the most important sources of diversity in an organization is the spectrum of conservative forces (favoring stability and precedent) and change-making forces (favoring experimentation and reform). Any organization will have camps that embody both ends of this spectrum.
Representatives of both groups should be concerned with organizational excellence and the ability to execute the mission, which requires continual improvement and innovation. Both groups bring unique perspectives to this process, and both groups must be in continual dialog. Both groups must listen, communicate, and focus on their shared commitment to creating and leading superior organizations.