“What the Catholic Church can teach us in terms of being disrupted?”

by Didier Marlier on Sunday February 6th, 2011

Alan Moore and Gerd Leonhard[1] came up with a great metaphor in terms of illustrating the concept of disruption: The Catholic Church and Gutenberg’s invention…

The clip here below summarizes the situation before and after the printing press invention in a short and convincing 4 minutes:

The internet is probably the biggest technological revolution since Gutenberg’s printing press. And it is fascinating to listen to Gerd and Alan when they explain how the record industry totally missed that train and still seeks to block it, suing yesterday’s mindset.

What can learn we from companies or businesses who became disrupted instead of creating the rupture themselves? A few common themes emerge from the Catholic Church to the record industry, from Nokia to General Motors, and maybe in the close future, from phone operators to Apple…

  • Drifting towards complacency and arrogance: We all know from history and psychology that success becomes a dangerous pit in which military and business “heroes” fall when it starts to suggest to them a feeling of invincibility. More pragmatically, Nick van Heck and Paul Verdin have summarized it into their VC2 matrix. This takes place when companies drift from Heaven to Dream (Illusion).
  • Failing to scan the periphery: The feeling of invincibility infects the culture which becomes, little by little egocentric. The Purpose (or Essence) of the company disappears, short term success, technology or product focus take over. Those who dare to spend time, experimenting without a specific R.O.I. linked to it, quickly understand this was not a good idea. Consequently, the whole organization will become less curious, will fail to understand what is happening around it, a bit like the Romans in their time who felt that building a wall against the Barbarians which they had severely defeated, would suffice to protect them for ever. After a while, the Barbarians reorganize themselves, new chiefs emerged and when they were ready reached Rome in a record of time. The same has happened with Western intelligence who lost touch with some regions of the globe (Afghanistan for example) and were unable to provide the necessary information to their governments.
  • Loosing sight of the Essence: The story says that Nokia arrogantly rejected those who came and offered them the Iphone technology, on the basis that is was (most probably rightly so) inferior to Nokia’s. But doing so showed that it was time already that Nokia had taken its eyes off their wonderful, inspiring and visionary Essence: “Connecting People”. The Essence is what a business really stands for, what it “Relevance[2]” is in this world. Failing to understand what your relevance is in the world will lead your business to death. We work with DCNS, a French high tech multinational who, since Louis XIV has been busy designing and building warships for the French Navy. Since a few years, DCNS has started a reflection on its true essence and understood it was centered around providing “marine solutions”. As an amazing demonstration, DCNS announced last week that it was ready to build nuclear power plants that would be located 600 meters under water. Their safety is far better than surface one, building them with DCNS technology is cheaper than the conventional ones… A true revolution (despite of my strong personal opposition to nuclear energy as long as it hasn’t solved its waste issue)
  • Not identifying our self limiting orthodoxies: This is another cause for being disrupted. We all remember the “Bay of Pigs” disaster (depending from which side we are;) which was caused by group-think, the name given to the kind of soft consensus which happens when no one dares to challenge the orthodoxy imposed by a few strong personalities in the group. The absence of challenge to the unwritten rule, the incapacity to hold a decent conversation about orthodoxies, the lack of a questioning mechanism to help us surface the unconscious beliefs we hold about our business are a huge threat to our businesses.

Being ill at ease with complexity: In a recent article[3], I was commenting a model of Snowden, which suggests that leaders will increasingly have to adapt to a new environment, “Complexity”, on top of those they already try to master (simple, complicated and chaotic). Complex environments are a true challenge to our leadership orthodoxies: it requires trial and error, letting the solution emerge, admitting temporary incompetence, integrating uncertainty and ambiguity in our strategic thoughts…

Gerd, Nick van Heck, Michael Newman, Nick McRoberts and I are busy working with some of our clients around these themes. Let us know if you have any interest as well.

On my way to Paris. Enjoy your week


[1] http://www.thefuturesagency.com/

[2] Emerson de Almeida, the founder of Fundação Dom Cabral wrote an excellent book (in Portuguese only and sadly) called “Fundamentos da empresa relevate” Elsevier 2006

[3] http://blog.enablersnetwork.com/2010/10/17/%E2%80%9Cconcrete-steps-to-lead-in-a-complex-environment-part-ii%E2%80%9D/

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2 Responses to ““What the Catholic Church can teach us in terms of being disrupted?””

  1. Excellent piece, Didier!
    It’s always edifying to find analogies between historical events and current challenges. History does repeat itself…
    I was intrigued by the reference to millions of books being available by 1500. Indeed, it seems to be true. Please take a look at this article:
    The reference to Fairchild and TI making peace and Kilby and Noyce acknowledgment of one another’s contributions was an eye-opener for me. A nice example of lateral thinking!
    Keep up the good work!
    Kind regards,


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