Dealing with disruption

I was listening to a brilliant interview with the theologian and scholar Walter Bruggeman this morning.  He was talking about “the prophetic imagination” and using the poetry of the Old Testament prophets to make a point about a key capacity that is missing in the world right now: the ability to deal with disruption.


SImply, disruption is what happens when the plans we thought we had have suddenly changed.  It could be a major economic collapse – a black swan event – or something so small as your bus left early.  How we respond to disruption is a key capacity for individual resourcefulness, and how we collectively deal with disruption is a key capacity for resilience.
It is interesting, as Bruggeman notes, that our frame for understanding the future is basically consumerist.  We purchase certainty.  It’s as if we invest in the present because it guarantees a given performance of the future.  When we buy something, we expect to receive quality and a guarantee that if it doesn’t work according to plan, we can hold someone else responsible.
That understanding about the way the future is supposed to roll out infects everything we do.  When events overtake our assumptions about the future, we look for someone to blame, someone to be accountable, someone to make it right.  I can find all kinds of ways in which I expect people to OWE me something.  It’s as if our participation in the social contract guarantees that our expectations will be met.
But they never are.  We cannot all live in our ideal worlds.  Diversity and complexity means disruption.
The greatest challenge of our time I think, both individually and collectively, is how to equip ourselves for disruption.  There are many patterns that scale across dimensions of practice, and a few key ones may be:
  • Self-awareness. Knowing your own response to disruption is helpful.  Do you get stressed by unexpected change?  Do you take it in stride?  Does your community shake and shudder with fits and paroxysms or do you just give up?  All of these reactions are common and they are interesting.  And they are not anyone’s fault or anyone else’s responsibility but your own.  Learning to be resourceful with disruption begins by knowing how you deal with it.
  • Stop. When events overtake you it is wise to stop.  The worst thing to do is to continue to pursue the course of action you initiated before the disruption occurred.  As an individual, stopping is easier than doing it as a collective.  It often takes a loud voice to get a group intent on achievement to stop what it is doing, so being prepared to stop means paying attention to the small voices – the ones inside yourself and the ones inside your team.
  • Look for surprise. One of the basic operating principles of Open Space Technology is “Be Prepared to Be Surprised.”  My friend Brian Bainbridge lived this principle, even from within the relative security and certainty of his life as a Catholic priest.  As a result he welcomed surprise with delight.  Looking for and preparing for surprises isn’t just a good self-help trick though.  It’s excellent planning.  And because by definition, you can never know what will surprise you, the best way to prepare for surprise is to train your outlook to work with it rather than against it.  Lots of energy is spent beating back the results of surprise.  We would do better to be able to see it’s utility and work with it.
  • Welcome and engage the stranger. There is a Rumi poem called “The Guest House” I love that has these lines in it: “This being human is a guest house.  Every morning a new arrival…Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows who sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honourably.  He may be clearing you out for some new delight.”  the stranger contains the answer.  When disruption occurs, it is like a door opening through which floods unfamiliarity.  That all comes with strangers and many of those strangers hold the answers to what to do next, but you have to take the time to engage with them.  And never discount the stranger among you, the person you thought you knew that suddenly becomes a different in the midst of a crises.
  • Choose wisely. Meeting the chaos of disruption with the order of stillness helps to create the space for wisdom.  Not having stillness means one gets caught up in the rush and tumble of chaotic disruption and one reacts instead of acting wisely.  Becoming still and then stopping has similar results.  Balancing chaos and order gives us the time and space to make a wise decision.  The opinions of others help here.  If you are alone when your life is disrupted, you might not have the breadth of understanding to make a wise decision.  You may end up travelling in a direction that takes you away from where you need to go.  When you make a choice, choose wisely.
  • Commit. Finally commit fully to your next move.  This is principle that is alive in the field of improvisational theatre.  The scene takes a surprising twist and as an actor you have two choices: hang on to the story you were previously developing or let the new story line change you.  You can tell an improviser that only half commits to the new story.  They become immediately stuck in a space that is too constrained to move.  They are wanting to work with the new but unwilling to abandon the old.  When disruption occurs it is already too late not to be changed by it.  So commit fully to the new world so that you can be a full participant in it.