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Digital city festival


14 Apr 2021

Disrupt or be disrupted: A cautionary COVID tale

James Baird, IT Director, Awaze
Disrupt or be disrupted: A cautionary COVID tale
James Baird, Awaze
James Baird, IT Director at Awaze, offers his tips so you can truly disrupt the market - so you can get ahead and be a disruptor, as opposed to being disrupted.

Disruption comes in many forms. Some of it is the result of macroeconomic impacts, geopolitics, world events - and in many cases it’s precipitated by technology and digital innovation.

But all too often it is associated with negative connotations - something done to you, your business or the entire sector, something you have to respond to, and at its most virulent, something that can threaten the survival of your business. 

The corporate superhighway is littered with the wrecks of many a business, some I’m sure you can recall, who suffered a rapid fall from grace as disruption engulfed them.

It doesn’t have to be like this - it’s possible to flip the odds in your favour, take back control, improve your business performance, become less disrupted and more disruptor; and the last year has provided some great cautionary insights.

Have you ever pulled out one of those corporate five-year strategy plans five years post publication, and looked back over it? I’d be surprised if you found anything that stood the test of time. We are invariably encouraged to make long-term plans, be it our families, our finances or our careers, but when it comes to your business I would urge caution about over-planning the roadmap.

Very little of what is built today will have enduring value to your customers - anyone craving a four-and-a-half year old iPhone 7?

If you have a penchant for planning long-term, then apply it to your pension, not to the features and capabilities of your next product or digital service. Create the capability to deliver with agility and deliver value incrementally.

If you provide digital services to your customers, simply adopting an agile delivery methodology will barely get you out of the starting blocks in the race to an agile nirvana. 

There are so many more things that will collectively propel you to the front like organisational structures and decisionmaking, automation and culture. One of the more powerful changes you can make is to pivot your organisation from project to product. The project is dead - long live the product.

Does the head of the MS Teams product team spend his time thinking about what his team will release in 2022? Of course not, they connect with their customers and use concepts like gamification to drive continuous value and features into the product, and deliver that using an agile approach.

If executed properly, people almost always respond positively to being given accountability, and it can be powerful if it becomes a culturally pervasive trait. But what does it look and feel like when done properly? 

Simply setting objectives for your teams or individuals in your business does not equal accountability. There are many missing ingredients. They need to have the right support, clear responsibilities, alignment on the results and measures, decisionmaking authority, and to be trusted to deliver an outcome. 

This is paramount, but all too often leaders and managers cling on to structures or processes that create friction to accountability when the risks of changing them are dwarfed by the value of doing so. 

4. Celebrate failure as fervently as success

A few people look at me with contorted expressions when I share my views on this. Clearly, I am not advocating a party, but I have the benefit of knowing and seeing how powerful and impactful this can be as a catalyst for experimentation. After all, to fail is simply the First Attempt In Learning! 

Creating a culture that shifts from tolerating or punishing failure to one that celebrates it, will deliver leveraged value when combined with encouraging experimentation and curiosity.

Creative solutions to problems and stronger value from opportunities are more likely to emerge as teams are liberated from the fear of failure. And it is perfectly possible to create an appropriate safe space for this to happen, where the controls align to the calculated risk and are a safety net, not a barrier or constraint. 

I'm sure we can all pull out a myriad of scholarly articles about the relative merits of vertical or horizontal organisational structures. And of course, what is right at the right time is often rooted in context, maturity, governance and a multitude of other considerations. 

However, if you're a digital business, I strongly extol the benefits of pursuing a flatter structure. It will reduce decisionmaking latency, make thought leaders more accessible, blur delineation of role boundaries and strengthen collaboration.  

As a technology leader in a business that has seen the positive impact this can have, I can say that some of our most impactful ideas have come from the most unlikely sources or fallen out of forums that would otherwise not have existed in a more vertical structure.

Collaboration is the fuel for innovation, and when you add curiosity it can turbocharge your innovation trajectory. 

People and teams are more inclined to be curious if they are empowered to explore.

By investing a little time, and leveraging the power and agility of cloud computing, it is relatively easy and inexpensive to create experimentation incubators. A safe place where teams and individuals can ask what if-type questions, try out new ideas and concepts, and quickly refine them or even change direction altogether. 

7. Prize flexibility over long-term commitments

Sometimes the discount to commit to a five-year contract appears too good to turn down. But before you jump in, consider carefully how important flexibility is to your business. 

Reflect on the recent pandemic where some industry sectors have been devastatingly impacted. If you were a low-cost airline, what value would you attach to the ability to turn down your cloud compute spend from millions of dollars per annum to a few hundred thousand? 

COVID is - hopefully - a once in a lifetime event, but being able to flexibly and dramatically control a major part of your cost base would soon offset the benefits of some short-term savings. 

And while COVID might soon be yesterday’s news, it may well have had an accelerating effect on other systemic or structural changes, such as the relentless shift to online shopping, which has devastated many a retailer, especially those with huge physical footprints and decade long leases.

And if you do decide to apply one or more of these to your business and the journey you are on, then:

I’m not suggesting you do some sort of segmentation analysis of your people and teams. The point is, transforming an organisation is hard.

To use the metaphor of leaping across a chasm - among your team there will be one who doesn’t even want to hear the elevator pitch, but is already utterly sold and will knock you aside to jump first. 

There'll be another who is with you but would prefer you go first, lead the way and show them how it might be done. Lastly, there will be one person who’d rather tie a breeze block round your ankle and throw you off than take a leap of faith. You need to know your people, team and know how to support them appropriately through the journey.


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