Reinvent. Renew. Repeat: Leading Through Disruption

You could argue there’s no greater skill set than the ability to adapt, evolve and reinvent. To navigate away from a predictable course and head into an uncertain future. It’s something I’ve done time and time again (I’ve relocated 17 times in my career). These career moves have taken me across the country and across industries, from tech to consumer-packaged goods to retail and back to tech. And along the way, I’ve had to adapt and stretch my skills–learning from both success and failure.

Just as constant change is now a consistent norm for us as individuals, so too can we build teams and organizations that are resilient, adaptive and able to disrupt themselves to compete and stay relevant. But as HR leaders, this presents us with a unique challenge. How do we make it safe to leave the security of the known business, challenge the dominant culture, and both surface and nurture disruptive innovation?

I recently heard a successful CEO share her approach on how she repositioned a traditional core business, unleashed R&D talent that had been buried under layers of hierarchy and leapfrog into new lines of business that would not previously have been possible. She explained it in somewhat simple terms, as making it safe to co-exist in three business horizons at once. In the first horizon, the focus was on transforming the existing business for agility and efficiency. The second horizon was to grow and expand (e.g., through penetrating adjacent or new markets). The third was to create and scale new businesses, which were given the freedom to disrupt and replace the existing business.

Ultimately, it was about the agility and resiliency of the individuals and teams behind this transformation, new areas of growth and the ability to stretch to innovative new markets with new products. She made it clear that without unleashing people to co-create these new approaches for reinvention, they wouldn’t be successful. Full stop.

So how do we best unleash this full potential of our teams, releasing them from hierarchical organizations and evolving to new ways of working that are fast, simpler and able to effectively support three horizons co-existing at once? As I have been out and about globally, I am seeing leaders who are creating networks of responsive teams, seamlessly assembled around customer and stakeholder needs, and able to dissolve and re-form swiftly without losing team or individual strengths. They are tapping into talent on demand–both inside and outside their core organizations–to flexibly connect the right skills to the point of need.

One thing that they seem to have in common is the ability to fully embrace technology to free up time from routine or mundane work and to reinvest it into innovation, design thinking and time to explore. By automating lower-value activities and empowering people with technology enablers like cognitive assistants, wearables, computer simulations and data visualization, they are creating time and space for people in their organizations to do the creative and innovative work that people do best. They are developing leaders at all levels who use technology to sense changes in their environment and respond as needed, taking a “test and learn” approach to penetrate adjacent or new markets.

The end result? The successful CEO explained that this method helped people feel safe to fail, to stretch boundaries and to try new approaches–all enabling her organization to be open to disrupting the core business at its peak. Her mantra: “Disrupt or be disrupted–that is the only way to grow.”

Another successful way I’ve seen organizations grow is through the development of talent ecosystems, even if that means joining forces with competitors. Organizations can combine complementary products, offers and capabilities to deliver more compelling customer propositions and speed industry innovation.

Spawning new businesses that spring up alongside the old also requires a culture that fosters innovation. We need to hire new talent using screening tools designed to bring in creative and innovative candidates, then reward innovative efforts by tying performance-management systems to the individuals and teams driving them. And we need to create more modular operating models, with different cultures, talent systems and processes optimized for the new business that are distinct from those that support legacy businesses. Eventually, an organization’s existing business will mature and be fully replaced with the new one.

Another word of wisdom from that successful CEO? Carefully pace people investments to determine when, where and how fast to reshape culture and talent as you make this transition. As HR leaders, we’ll need to build career paths and skills to help our people evolve and adapt to support the new business as it grows and replaces the only business they might ever have known. In the end, our success as leaders will be defined based on how well we help people reinvent, renew and repeat, to ready themselves for the challenges that lie ahead.

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Eva Sage-Gavin
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at