Bad Advice: Be Disruptive

"Be disruptive."

It’s meant to encourage innovation, new approaches, new ideas, inject fresh blood into old ideas. I think it's a great mantra to disrupt existing models, businesses, and ways of doing things. Unfortunately, all too often I have seen it used as a meaningless platitude and as an excuse to become a self-righteous pain in the ass. 

Leading disruptive change isn't as simple as raising your fist and yelling “follow me!” unless you’re the top boss in a culture where people will actually do as you say. 

Being disruptive is easy. Enabling lasting, effective, and positive change is hard. 

•••••

About seven years into my career while working in a game development studio I developed a small reputation as the guy who asked hard, challenging questions of management. Because of this my peers would encourage me to bring the difficult stuff up while they’d stay back, nice and safe, potentially better informed, and definitely highly amused. I didn't know any better as my ego and my mouth got the better of me. Those all-hands studio meetings were fun, I tell you what. Didn’t help my career much, but I could stay warm at night in my blanket woven out of self-righteousness. 

Over the years I have seen many others in many different organizations take a similar approach and meet with varying levels of failure, too. Somewhere along the line they probably heard the same advice to "be disruptive" and misunderstood it just like I did. 

•••••

These are some of the many related lessons I've learned over the years. I wouldn't say there was a single event that made it clear to me that my disruptive behavior wasn't helpful to anyone, least of all to me, but chalk it up to a bit of maturity, a whole bunch of small screw-ups, and getting sick of not getting anywhere. 

It’s far, far easier to destroy than build. Back in 2010, a blogger named Ryan Tate ended up in an email exchange with Steve Jobs who ended the discussion by saying, "By the way, what have you done that's so great? Do you create anything, or just criticize others [sic] work and belittle their motivations?" Criticizing isn't the same as creating unless you're Roger Ebert. Don't confuse the ability to critique with the ability to create. 

You don’t have to be the hero of the change. This is super hard, since part of the whole “Be disruptive” manifesto is its hero syndrome. We are human. We have egos. 

Don’t confuse “different” with “better”. Sometimes different is worse. Sometimes different was already considered and discarded for good reasons. Sometimes different is better, but not always. And when it is better, not everyone may agree and you have to remember that different may actually be scary or threatening for someone. Their fear may or may not be unreasonable – but if this is someone you need to make change happen, like your boss or client, you need to deal with it. 

 Bombs away! 

Bombs away! 

Don't make your disruption someone else’s problem. You want to make it something that others want to be a part of, not something they just want to go away. Don't be that loudmouth that throws figurative grenades at people just trying to work. Or practice albatross management – you know, fly way above it all, make lots of noise, then swoop down to poop on things and fly away from the damage. Tempting, but don't do it.  

•••••

In 2001 I was in the “Concept Development Group” at Microsoft Game Studios. This small group of people, led by our Creative Director, Jordan Weisman, developed this idea of how to experience a game in a completely different way. When someone discovers the game, it would be like Alice following the white rabbit into Wonderland. 

Jordan did a great job of selling this idea to a few key people inside the company as well as to some important outsiders. He drummed up the necessary support and recruited people to join him in making it happen. Inside the company a small group of less than ten people worked in secret for months; others in offices fifty feet away had no idea what we were working on. Over a period of a few months, we created this alternate interactive narrative for Spielberg’s upcoming movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. When we saw our rabbit in the wild for the first time, it was something else. 

The shining letters spelled out "WARN HER", referring to Sentient Machine Therapist, Jeanine Salla in the trailer's end credits. If you were curious to know who the hell had such a strange job title and searched for it online, you would find the answer among the game’s websites which we created.  

If you were even more observant, you'd also notice the notches in the letters of "SUMMER 2001". This was a code for a phone number with a mysterious message. Down the rabbit hole you went. 

Watching people discover and then engage with this world-within-a-world was an amazing experience for those of us involved in creating it. Our internal code name for this was "The Beast" because it originally had 666 pieces of content, but as we went live and people consumed what we threw at them, we ended up creating way more than that. However, the nickname stuck. 

The people who ended up getting pulled into our game coined a term for those of us who pulled the strings behind the scenes – Puppetmasters. In the end we created what many consider to be the first of a new genre of entertainment called Alternate Reality Games or ARGs, and many of my former colleagues have continued to develop the genre further to great success. 

•••••

So instead of simply "being disruptive", remember these simple tips: 

  • Communicate – create fertile ground for your work.
  • Recruit – get others to fight for your cause with you. 
  • Hustle – walk the walk and talk the talk. 

Effective communication is a skill that many designers aren’t trained to do well. Doing good design work is the ante, but to truly enable it to create the desired effect, you must enable it to land in fertile ground. Apply the design process to the communication and not just the project. What is the goal of the communication – to inform, to drive a decision, or what? Who's the audience and what do they need? 

You need to recruit others to be part of the change. The art of persuasion is another thing that designers are often uncomfortable with, and we often throw around the word "politics" as if it were a dirty word. Go ahead and use another word if you want, but the fact remains – when you have two or more people with uneven levels of power, money, or influence, you will have politics. Politics is an aspect of human culture; it’s how we work together as a species. Used effectively, groups of people can do great things together. Used poorly, you have the U.S. Senate. 

 I love this poster by Joey Roth.

I love this poster by Joey Roth.

All talk and no work makes you a charlatan. All work and no talk makes you a martyr. All work and talk makes you a hustler. Be a hustler or find partners who can complete your team. There is no substitute for doing good work so you have credibility, but without the proper talk behind it, the work will not be effective. 

I still struggle to remember these simple lessons – it's hard to suppress your natural tendencies – but many small changes add up.