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#320 Disruption: Demolition or Deconstruction

August 27th, 2018

Richard Marker

We recently had occasion to discover our inner toddler. You know, the gleeful pleasure in knocking things down… blocks, books, and pretty much anything else that gets in the way.

In our case, it was more voyeuristic. Directly across the street from our apartment is the site of what will be the new world headquarters of a major hotel company and one of their hotels. When completed it is to be one of the largest buildings in the area. It remains to be seen – literally and figuratively – whether it will be the aesthetic asset the developers promise.

But one cannot build a new building until one removes those already on the site – and that removal has proven more than a little captivating.

At first, we assumed that we would see a straightforward demolition – the kind that a toddler would do – an enthusiastic knockdown, let the Legos fall where they may. We sat captivated as the large equipment began to destroy what people had carefully built a couple of generations ago. Huge equipment with jaws and shovels and who knows what else. At the pace they were going, we were sure it would all be done in a day or two. Clear it all away and start the next phase.

However, what we realized was that we were not watching a demolition but a deconstruction. That huge equipment might have been able to demolish those buildings in a day, but the highly skilled operators were doing something else. They were taking the buildings apart in such a way that the elements were being separated, – metal beams here, metal rods over there, and in another building, bricks here, windows there… and ultimately some piles of remaining detritus just piled up waiting to be removed.

Deconstruction, we realized, is a recognition that not everything that is demolished is to be discarded. Within these long vacant and no longer viable spaces remained much that still has value, that should be reused somewhere. Change was/is inevitable, and often desired, but it need not require that everything that needs to be changed is to be discarded. The toddler stage passed quickly as we became ever more fascinated watching the care that is used in this dismantling and deconstruction. We grew ever more respectful of the planning and the incredible skill that these hard-hatted craftsmen used in delicately making distinctions among materials.

This is an all too obvious cautionary metaphor for the work of innovation and reinvention – disruption- that characterizes our era. It is one thing to take down the structures of the past, but making distinctions among the detritus and that which still has value, and ultimately what should be constructed its place… ah, there is the rub.

Which brings me back to the word of the last decade – disruption.

Disruption writ small describes every intervention in a business or organization. Over the last decade, almost every one of my speaking or consulting assignments has included the expectation that my role was to “disrupt” their audience, foundation, organization. Looking back on it, many didn’t really mean it. They wanted to wake up their group, not challenge anything essential about what they were doing. Yet “disruption”, even writ small and even with limited expectations, has implications.

To take but one example: Some readers may recall an article I wrote about site visits as a way for funders to gather information about potential grantees. In the article I cautioned that a site visit is a disruptive intervention for non-profits. Cleaning up, setting regular work aside, prepping for the funder means that hard pressed smaller non-profits are doing something other than their primary work. If we as funders really need that site visit to help us know what we need to know to make our decisions, it is a justifiable disruption, but if we are doing it just because we can [or read somewhere that we should], it is of questionable ethics and value.

A strategic plan, an evaluation, a development plan, a leadership change – each is a normal and justifiable disruption. They all lead to some sorts of change even if that change is more self-reflective decision making or conscious affirmation of the prior ways of doing things or reinforcing the organization culture. As normal as they may be, every one of these interventions disrupts the time, the approach, the articulation, the aspirations – and because of that should be entered into with full awareness. If done well, every one of these disruptions can be helpful, but no one should ever underestimate the implicit cost of time, energy, and even money that they incur. When done really well, [and/if the circumstances warrant], these disruptions can prove fully transformative. And if not….

Writ large, disruption has come to mean something much more transformative. Our ways of life get disrupted in profound ways sometimes: the invention of the printing press, the concept of individual rights and the nation state, modes of transportation are just a few examples of prior transformative disruptions that changed the way we know things, get places, see ourselves, and set expectations.

In recent years, several disruptions have transformed key elements of our lives, and are continuing to do so. To take just two: On-line shopping has led to the change in the way many people spend money; the internet has changed the way most of us communicate and know things.

These macro disruptions have led to the demolitions of brick and mortar shopping, the virtual disappearance of bookshops, radical changes in how we know/learn things, how we relate to others, even our attention spans.

Some of this disruption has been informed by genuine attempts at deconstruction: making choices more abundant and efficient, making information more readily available to anyone with a smart phone and not be dependent on an intermediary. But they also have led to consequences not fully understood prior to the disruptions: what do you do with all those empty store spaces and those left underemployed because of that, how do you account for the anarchization of knowledge – with truth becoming more elusive by the moment and its concomitant political dangers. Not fully endorsing responsibility for the consequences of disruption can yield destructive demolition and not authentic deconstruction of past institutions, mores, and systems.

In macro disruption, the implications are great. It isn’t just transient interruption of an organization’s daily game plan but the dislocation of whole populations and economic stability.

Social networking is an important example: I believe that Facebook et al allow a reestablishment of more normal set of relationships, albeit in an entirely new format. In the past, we always knew lots of incidental things about people in our circles or neighborhoods. Most of those things were trivial but gave a vibrant character to the wide range of daily relationships. In late modernity, however, suburbia and high-rise apartments reinforced the atomization of our experiences, leaving people more disconnected and lonelier. FB gives us lots of incidental information about our extended circles that reminds us that our worlds and personal histories are more robust than the episodicity of highly orchestrated and planned get togethers. It restores the incidental and serendipitous.

But – and this is a very big but – all of this comes with an all too brief history of how to control mis-information or attempts at willful and malicious disruption of the political ethos. We are struggling with the benefits of massive democratization this medium fosters vs those who are malignant abusers – and, ultimately, who should be empowered to make decision. If we don’t get it right, we will have demolished established ways of relating to people, however limited, without the careful deconstruction that allows us to save the value imbedded within.

A goal of our era is to transform our world through creative disruption. But, unless done in a way that the essence of how we learn, how we share public spaces, how we account for economic dislocation, how we respect the other, the replacements will never achieve the transformative values that they are supposed to represent. Those of us who are disrupters need to tread delicately – since the future, our future, profoundly depends on that.

Yes, one can learn a lot from a destruction site.

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