Leading Through Disruption – Encouraging Disobedience

Leading Through Disruption – Encouraging Disobedience

This article was first published in Business Times on 3 January 2020

Leading Through Disruption – Encouraging Disobedience

John Bittleston, Founder Mentor, Terrific Mentors International

A New Year. You may call it the Year of Disruption, for that is what it is certain to be. So I welcome you to the series of articles I am going to write under a new column, entitled Leading through Disruption. What a contrast to how we have been taught to lead before. What a risk to take with a stable business plodding happily along, not anticipating any need to change. What a nightmare if our wires get crossed and we short circuit our work in the effort to disrupt.

Why the theme of disruption? Surely we have enough of it without precipitating more?

Never has risk been so close to our daily activities. Where we used to conduct a risk analysis based largely on the experience of our elders we must now see what data analytics can do for us. Taking the guess out of risk is a goal we all have. Those who approach it fastest will win the next decade. In the past, risk has deterred us. We are mostly risk averse. Avoid the banana skin and save your bones. It made sense. But not anymore. Risk is your right arm in the 2020s.

Disobedience can be frightening
If the theme of these articles shocks you, the title of the first one will do so even more. Encouraging Disobedience is a challenging aim. Making it happen is a frightening prospect. So why should you set this as one of your top goals for 2020? Will your business prosper if your senior people stop saying ‘Yes, Sir’ and ‘Yes, Ma’am?’ How can you filter disobedience so that the spoiler is removed from the pack and the builders and designers are included in your secret thoughts?

Hierarchy is king in Asia and in many other parts of the world, too. The religious and philosophical beliefs, long-held and valuable, built the societies of kingdoms. They are deeply ingrained. They support many valuable properties like family cohesiveness, filial piety, reciprocity and politeness. We will do well to preserve these. Many of them have disappeared in the west, to its disadvantage. These valuable properties have their disadvantages, too. A reluctance to change, the aged deciding most things that affect progress and that other side of respect, subservience.

Relax control over staff to maintain control of the business
You do not want to lose control of your business. That means controlling your staff, too. Control is so easy, actually. You may dispute that. If you do, it means you probably don’t have very much control anyway. Now is the time to rethink control totally. Where before it seemed desirable and may, indeed, have been desirable, it is now the No 1 management no-no. For every bit of control you exert you deprive an employee of doing their part, making a contribution, feeling fulfilled, hugging the company. Only when your employees give a goodnight and good morning hug to the business can you feel that you are getting the best from them.

Too touchy-feely for you? A top businessman told me that twenty years ago. Now he employs every touchy-feely he can lay his hands on. He has seen how much they can do for the business. But by itself touchy-feely is just a trick. The touchy-feely we all need has more bottom and greater resilience than just tricks. It is the touchy-feely of Trust – and that is made of steel, not cotton wool. The paradox is that you generate Trust by disruption, not by control.

The business I built (Cerebos Pacific Ltd, which owns Brand’s Essence of Chicken), based in Singapore, with eighteen operations around the region, could run very smoothly with minimum attention and not too much work for the bosses. It would have remained a tiny but profitable business. It would have been vulnerable to discovery, competition, and heavy marketing spending. The disruption I Introduced was different industries, controversial acquisitions, new sources of capital, simple rules and very few of them. I let senior people work on the subjects that interested them. I applauded their pace regardless of whether quick or slow. Forcing pace on people leads to disaster. If in doubt, ask Boeing.

The right type of disobedience
The disobedience you need in your business must be carefully thought out. Random disobedience leads to disaster. Top-down disobedience involves irresponsibility. You need ground-level disobedience of the enquiring, curious sort that wants change for the better, not for change’s sake, and seeks participation rather than control. Post WWII the Trades Unions in the west did a good job of corporate disobedience. But it was too politically tied and sometimes too violent for the social structure it was trying to develop. Destruction is seldom the harbinger of success.

You do not want covert disobedience either. By its nature disobedience is somewhat secretive. If it isn’t you have a trusting, open society where opportunities are discussed more than problems and where leaders emerge without formal appraisal. That is the Valhalla of corporate management. Alas, it is seldom achieved. People are, mercifully, individuals with loves and hates, ambitions and generosity, potential and idleness all mixed up inside them. A manager has to handle that. A good manager does so with minimum interference and maximum delegation.

Disobedience at Cerebos
The positive traits of good management are more important than the negative traits which are now well understood if not so well executed. High on the positive list ladder is Encouraging Disobedience. My Big Disobedience in the latter part of my career was to refuse to sell Brand’s Essence of Chicken for a small sum (S$10M). It was what I had been sent to Singapore to do. My parent company wanted to develop in the U.S. – a strategic move of which I disapproved. The U.S., in my experience was the toughest market in the world to enter and our British style did not suit corporate Americans at all.

Fortunately, the distraction of the American developments kept management’s eyes diverted from Asia and I was able to develop the business to a point where, eleven years after I had started in it, I sold it for just under S$1Bn. My disobedience was of course noticed. Originally laughed at, then taken more seriously, it was subsequently claimed to have been the Head Office’s idea. They needed one. The American venture failed. ‘Success has many fathers; failure is an orphan.’

A culture of good disobedience may seem an anachronism. It is very real and wholly possible. Does it make management easier? No, it does not.

But it makes it more massively more successful.