Leadership Spotlight: Chris Leary on The Role of Disrupters

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Chris Leary is a principal with KlingStubbins/Jacobs. We were chatting over cocktails at an event, when he mentioned his recent thinking about “disrupters”; people who shake things up. I found the concept intriguing, so I followed up to interview him in more depth and hear his thoughts about how disrupters can drive change in a firm.

Barbra Batshalom: Chris, we’ve talked a lot about leadership and change management issues, especially in large firms. We’ve had many conversations with sustainability leaders around the world, but you were the first person to bring up the role of the “disrupter” – how would you frame it and why is this important?

Chris Leary: Well, maybe I should begin by trying to put some structure on it and provide context. A healthy organization has a wide variety of personality types. There are people who do the same things over and over again, and continue to build on, improve and refine what they do. But if that’s all you have, you optimize a process that will be obsolete by the time it’s optimized.  You need to balance that and have a healthy mix with people who are trying to find the next thing.

There are certain types of people who are most stimulated by going out and doing something new, and I think a mark of a good organization is that it can tolerate some degree of that. At our scale you can’t be completely disruptive. At a small scale you can go do whatever you want. I think that one of the burdens of leadership is how to let enough disruption happen to keep it fresh, but have enough of a balance.

I’ve seen certain organizations become command and control: “Do what I tell you to do.” If you fear that your rabble-rousing is a threat to your career, it’s probably not a good place. Luckily there aren’t as many of those places as you might think. Although I’m actually amazed at how many people think they can’t cause trouble, when they actually can.

BB: They feel they can’t because of outside influences?

CL: Right, or fear that it won’t be tolerated. We used to have Friday afternoon beer and design chats here, and I remember one of them got pretty contentious. Later, I encountered one of the senior principals and I felt the need to apologize. He said, “No, that’s why we have young staff here; you’re supposed to cause trouble”.

However, causing trouble can’t be reckless or distracting.  It’s not about throwing bombs; it’s generally much smaller than that, around the edges.

BB: So it sounds like there are a couple things – the organization creating conditions that are conducive to some level of disruption yet simultaneously creating a boundary, “Here is where this dialogue happens, because we want it to happen”.

CL: Well, I don’t mean that you create a particular room or a particular time slot and say, “now, be disruptive.”  What you have to do is find a way to positively reinforce and reward good disruptive behavior rather than explicitly invite it.

Because I was given license to be a disrupter in one venue doesn’t mean I was limited to that venue. That was just when I realized it was okay.  There is a dilemma here that I see as a leader. You look at your organization and you want to proactively make it better, but there is also something to be said for an organization where people take initiative on their own.  There needs to be some fire in people to do something, so if you make it too easy for them to do it, there is a Darwinistic filter that is missing there.

It’s even trickier in an organization with multiple offices.  You can’t create a “standard procedure” for how to be disruptive, but every office has to allow room for good disruptive behavior.

One thing that works here that is a little more tactical, is pilot projects.  When you want to implement any kind of change in a big organization, there’s this thought that you have to reinvent the whole mechanism, but the mechanism is big and slow. So if you want to do new work you have to allow experiments to happen and then leverage the successful ones more broadly.  And again, I think that rewards a different kind of person. I think that one technique you can analyze is how you let experiments happen.

BB: That’s definitely one of the pillars of change management: having pilots or focused activities that create successes to build on. It’s a great tactic.  However there are firms that I have come across whose culture emphasizes reliability over innovation. Some flat-out fear it.

CL: Yes, I see people on the sidelines waiting for the invitation to innovate or be a disrupter. I think that people who really do push the envelope do it on their own.  You can’t wait for someone to open a job number or give you permission. It’s a different mindset.

BB: Do you have any observation about age? Do you find younger folks wait on the sidelines?

CL: Yes, younger staff haven’t gone through the reward and reinforcement cycle, so that’s one thing I try to do as a leader is I try to look for people who do interesting things and reward them.  They haven’t taken the risk before. Sometimes they don’t know how to be a disrupter. Again, it’s not about walking in the room and throwing bombs, its about knowing how to take the way a system works and kind of “hack” it.

I’ll give you a simple example. We have this really good quality control program. It annoys everybody at some level, but objectively it really is very good and very deliberate. There’s a series of filters that a project goes through before it can go out the door – and it dawned on me one day, year ago – we decide what the filters are, why can’t the filter be as dumb as “do you have a LEED checklist completed?”. Rather than rely on getting the CEO to tell everybody that sustainability is important, you kind of go and reprogram something that already works and make it happen that way. That’s the kind of thing that may be easier to see from my perspective but may be harder to see from a younger person’s perspective.

BB: Another point that I hear implied in what you’re saying, that is underutilized, is an affinity with systems thinking; being able to have an objective and then look at a system and see where the leverage points are.  I wonder if there is a correlation between effective disrupters and being able to think in systems?

CL:  There may be.  There’s also the matter of perspective and experience over time. I wouldn’t have known that 15 years ago. I have a different perspective now. There are different kinds of disruptive people that range from that range from innovators to anarchits and everything in between.

I think trouble-making can be positive outside the office as well.  For example, it may be easier to go to a conference and speak.  If you bring back work as a result you’re sure to get positive reinforcement for your ideas.

BB:  I talk to a lot of people who are in the role of “Director of Sustainability”. It seems part of that role is identifying key disrupters who want to explore and innovate, and rewarding that behavior, as well as being able to identify when that person doesn’t exist.

CL:  Ideally, yes.  In reality, the role of the Sustainability Director varies widely from company to company.  Is it thought leader?  Content expert?  Knowing how to access LEED On-line?  It shouldn’t be about answering the same questions over and over but about recognizing people with a combination of passion and knowledge and bringing that to the fore.

BB: So the combination of perspective and experience is clearly critical.  Perhaps an intentional effort to “mine” the human resources would be to filter staff capability by their innate skills. From a management perspective, understanding who are natural leaders, who are effective facilitators – if there are certain personal qualities that could be tracked along with more conventional skills, then maybe we could utilize them better? What do you think?

CL: When you evaluate people, you can try to have fair metrics, but you make subjective decisions as well.  Whether it’s intentional or not, there is a system of reward in play.  One thing about my career here is that my work has always been acknowledged. People see that happen and think “I can do that too”.  Whereas if you felt like you had the wind in your face you wouldn’t do it.   You can’t artificially make it happen – it’s not just a matter of priority or space– but you can help the right people to succeed.

BB: So in addition to the value of the employees, their skills and talents, there is the larger, collective body of knowledge; managing it so it can be leveraged across an organization. Firms try different approaches to connect the dots between individual talent, wisdom and experimentation and sharing more broadly so others can benefit using different means of knowledge management. I haven’t seen one magic bullet that’s been hugely successful. Do you have any thoughts about that?

CL: I can think of a couple of examples of how individual efforts became the norm at Kling Stubbins.  One was around LEED.  At the beginning, a few of us bought the Reference Guide and figured out how to apply it to a project.  Then we brainstormed with a larger group who wanted to use it as well.  Eventually, the firm developed a curriculum with CEUs so everyone could learn and LEED became the norm.

Another example happened during the transition from CAD to BIM.  First a few people tried it.  Then it gradually grew until it got to the point where it was inefficient to have two parallel systems and we needed to commit.

An idea that contributed significantly to the change came from IT.  They said that in order to create a project folder, people would be required to answer a few basic questions about the project.  We added the question, “Will you use BIM?” If you answered “No”, you had to tell the CEO why.  That quickly weeded out everyone who didn’t have a really good reason why BIM was not the right tool for their project!

BB: There comes a time when holding on to the past is more painful than moving on to the future! So, it sounds like there are many moments where efforts that start with one person or a small group then evolve to become part of the way of doing things. What about supporting the development of individuals to achieve that healthy balance of “good disruption”. Can mentoring and providing role models encourage more “Chris-like” behavior?

CL:  There’s nothing that bores a person who needs to stretch faster than putting a formal system around it.  But I have no problem with someone trying to learn from what I do.

BB: One thing we haven’t talked about explicitly is risk – clearly some people are more risk averse and others less so and a tolerance for risk is a necessary ingredient for being a disrupter!

CL:  There’s a lot of dynamics around risk. Sometimes people ask to take risk and are told “no”, sometimes risks are taken and fail – but I think an important thing to remember is that being a disrupter doesn’t necessarily mean being a revolutionary. I think you can be disruptive with lots of little disruptions more effectively than with major big ones – hence the thought of contained experiments.

When we did that Autodesk IPD project (Integrated Project Delivery is a multi-party legal contract, a radically different approach to legal relationships), that was crazy on a lot of levels but the biggest thing was this unusual agreement. I remember having a discussion with our CEO at the time and he said, “Look, I just don’t like this agreement, it seems really risky.” Then we sat back and said, “it’s an office fit-up, how badly could we mess that up? In the scheme of what we do, it’s one of the most straightforward project types, and the client is championing this”. The concept seemed risky, but when you put it in context, we realized that even if it went wrong, it wasn’t going to sink the ship.

The disruptions aren’t always colossal but they build up over time and can have far-reaching impacts. Project work is a good example, that’s a situation where people are always doing new things and most people don’t even know about it – a great test bed. You can contain that in your own world of risk and try one thing at a time. In a big organization, a healthy way to do it is in smaller, digestible pieces – spreads out risk and over time, can really influence the trajectory of an organization.

BB: Thanks, Chris, for sharing your thoughts. I think your perspective on healthy disruption really captures the spirit of innovation and how it happens in larger companies. As you say, a good company takes all types, people who want to break new ground and people who optimize standards – not expecting one person to be all of those things. And it’s a great reminder to champions who are impatient because they don’t see enough change, fast enough – that lots of smaller disruptions are happening all the time and just aren’t recognized as such!