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Rower, pirate or rocket builder: How do you respond to disruption?

We’re all travelling across an uncertain ocean between the industrial and network society – and different strategies are in play.

If you look at how commercial organisations respond to disruptive change from new technologies, there are a number of identifiable approaches. I call them ‘row harder’, ‘go pirate’ or ‘build a rocket’: 

  • Row harder: this will feel familiar to public sector bodies as it's all about removing costs, becoming more lean and dialling up efficiency to counter the effect of a less buoyant market or changes to buyer behaviour. In the public sector context, it's about efficiency and cost cutting as a way of coping with austerity.
  • Go pirate: pirates are ruthlessly focused on out-performing their traditional rivals. They are betting that the market will evolve and not pivot and they can out-compete the pack. Even if the challengers do come and disrupt their market they are banking on being first followers in the new market. Look at the massive investment that established banks put into the Fintech market or the investment that retailers like Tesco put into new models for examples of this strategy in action. Then think about how often integration strategies in public services feel more like pirate raids than genuine collaborations.
  • Build a rocket: rocket builders are looking to reimagine their opportunity. Think about Airbnb vs the traditional travel market. They use new tools and technologies - and a digital mindset - to address implicit and explicit user needs in very different ways. These are organisations that are not just responding to changes in society, but anticipating and, in some cases, shaping (think about how Amazon shaped our behaviours). 

Of course, it’s not that simple. Some rowers will get there through sheer determination and some pirates will choose to settle on a small island that they find on the way and carve a niche for themselves. Rocket ships will crash. But my point is that we are all in the ocean now and rowing around aimlessly will not get us across. 

My suggestion? Use your pirate skills to capture an island within sight of the other shore and start building rockets. But your choice of strategy will depend as much upon your organisational culture and ambition as it does on your response to market forces. Knowing if you are in a boat full of rowers, pirates or rocket builders and recruiting the right team is critical to your success. Knowing if you yourself are a rower, pirate or rocket builder is just as important. 

And if we are travelling across an uncertain ocean it could be that your compass is your most important tool. Do you know where you are going?

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Catherine Howe

Digital innovation director, Capita

Catherine is an expert in how communities embrace digital innovation, be it in smart cities, digital democracy or social change. She has over 15 years’ experience, throughout the UK and Europe, looking at how new technologies can best benefit individuals and communities and how the Networked Society can prosper from the coming innovations that will impact where and how we live and work. Working across the public sector she is currently helping deliver projects such as the ground breaking NHS Citizen initiative as well as digital leadership programmes within local government.

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