The Right Kind of Disruptive

February 26, 2016

Internal disruption versus external on the startup world.

Hearing the word “disrupt” nowadays makes me cringe. It’s thrown around so much that it almost loses its meaning; tell anyone about a disruptive startup and you can even hear the sound of eyes rolling into the back of their heads.

But disruption is needed, surely. While it is definitely a good exercise to come up with ways how you or your company can indeed disrupt a business or a market, I believe there’s another kind of disruption that it’s rarely mentioned: an internal one, rather than external.

Remember the traditional definition of disruptive:

“To disrupt: …to drastically alter or destroy the structure of.”

If a company truly wants to disrupt the traditional way of doing X, such company needs to understand and internalise what it means to adapt to a change. And guess what? Changes starts from within, as you’ve probably read in any self-help book out there. A startup is no different: failing to disrupt internally with success can mean that a company isn’t willing to listen and accept a different set of values or ways to do things. And when you cling to old habits, you’re stuck on a very dangerous old mindset.

If you can’t successfully disrupt internally, how do you expect to do so externally?

Changing processes and tools

At GatherContent, like many companies, we follow our own variation of Scrum and Agile processes. Being a fully remote team, the health of our communication is absolutely critical to ensure everyone’s on the right path and aligned with the company’s vision and objectives. We do our daily stand-ups, our retrospectives, scheduled company meetings, and all the other traditional ceremonies you’re probably used to already.

But every now and then, we throw it all out the window and start from scratch. Whatever wasn’t working before, even if we didn’t notice it, won’t naturally restart afterwards.

A very simple example: we recently moved from HipChat to Slack as our main platform of communication. There was nothing wrong with HipChat. Everyone in the team was happily using it and it met all of our needs; there was nothing HipChat couldn’t do that would justify giving Slack a try.

As fans of internal experiments, we’ve decided to do a Slack trial run to see how everyone felt. A disruption in the force! We didn’t expect to be permanently moving to Slack; like all good scientific experiments, we would measure both positives and negatives from this transition and debate at the end whether or not to continue.

“You won’t believe what happened next!”

Even though nothing was, in practical terms, different from before, our entire team was disrupted by an internal change. This caused challenges; and we grew as a team by discussing them and tackling them together. For example:

  1. We missed HipChat’s custom away messages: so we’ve created a #whereis channel that everyone can use to say when they’re away. This, by accident, lead to more conversations about our daily lives. We feel part of each other’s routine. I’ve never felt closer to my team mates than now.
  2. We missed the ability to create custom aliases in channels. This lead us to learn a bit more about creating Slack integrations; wanting to create a customised bot, I’ve finally learned how to create a custom bot in node.js and deploy it on Heroku. I became a better developer.
  3. Seeing the possibility for these integrations, we’re running more experiments with our own API to integrate it with Slack. We now see more potential in the tools that were already available to us.
  4. Discussing how to make better use of this shiny new tool, we’ve also created a #thanks channel where we thank other team members throughout the day for various little things we’re grateful for. We feel like better human beings. We do!

Disruptive better human beings.

And here’s the main thing: all of these actions, we could have done them with our previous tool, HipChat. But we did? No. Would we?

Probably not.

And simply because the point is not tool A vs. tool B; there wouldn’t have been an internal disruption that would cause us to go the extra mile. I see it in a way as stepping outside the comfort zone as a company and seeing it and its processes as an organic thing, rather than a heavy stone that will never shape itself and adapt.

Run experiments and don’t be afraid to question the things that are already working well. Disrupt internally first to learn how to deal with its outcomes, become accustomed to controlled change… and then, only then, you should think about disrupting the world out there.

Ricardo Magalhães works as a Front-End Web Developer for GatherContent.

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Written by Ricardo Magalhães who works for the Internet. By day, a front-end web developer with a passion for typography and design. By night, he sleeps. Follow me on Mastodon.