Were you the kid at the back of the class with a smart answer everything? Did you ask the teacher awkward questions and were you always querying the way things were done? Then the role of Chief Disruption Officer (CDO) could be right up your street!
Disruption is the buzzword of the moment, and maybe you’ve been wondering what’s actually involved in being responsible for disruption within your company. What does the role entail and what skills do you need to be a successful CDO?
How do CDOs view disruption?
If you’re hoping that being a CDO is a chance to have fun by causing a little chaos within your organization, you’ll be sadly disappointed! As Arjen van Berkum, Chief Disruption Officer for the Dutch company Conclusion says: “It’s about much more than just ‘Hey – this is a cool joke title. Let’s go out there and do funny stuff.’”
Disruption for its own sake is pointless, and can even dangerous to the ultimate health of a company. Instead, disruption is all about continuously auditing both your own company and the wider industry to identify weaknesses, and then making sure your organization is well-placed to address these and respond to changes.
What does the CDO role actually involve?
“You basically have to disrupt your own flow, the structure of your own company, to fix a long-term weakness,” says Artem Mashkov, founder and CDO of DevTribe. He also stresses that it’s not just about focusing inwards – looking outwards at what’s going on in your industry sector is also essential.
“You look at weakness that’s long-term in the industry,” he explains. “And you position your company in a way that will disrupt the normal flow and processes within the industry, to address that weakness.”
As van Berkum says, this could include responses like “engaging with other companies, new technologies, different kinds of partnerships, and different kinds of business models.”
The role of CDO has been most prominent in business, but of course, significant changes and developments are taking place within a much wider field, including government departments and armed forces.
And it’s not only about processes and technologies. You also need to understand what makes people tick, why they make their decisions and how they interact with technology and with other people.
What’s the difference between innovation and disruption?
Some view the roles of CDO and Chief Innovation Officer as almost interchangeable but both van Berkum and Mashkov disagree.
“For me,” says van Berkum, “Innovation is doing what you have always done but doing it smarter. And disruption is a radical change of your business model.” And because these are different, he believes that responsibility should go to different people within the company. The focus for innovation is more about the present or short-term goals, whereas disruption is focused on totally new ways of doing things, as a kind of “insurance” against future changes.
Of course, a good CEO will also have an eye to the future, and there may well be a degree of overlap in responsibilities, especially in smaller organizations. This is also true of start-ups, which by their very nature are outward-looking and more agile.
Which companies would benefit most from a CDO role?
Every company needs to consider how to be ready for the rapid changes in their sector. But on the whole, older and more established organizations are the ones least likely to have the flexibility to adapt. Board members may be resistant to change or reluctant to take risks – after all, they’re answerable to their shareholders. And if things appear to be going well, it takes a lot of courage and determination to rock the boat, even if the future benefits may be considerable. Because the outcome is unpredictable.
Indeed, as van Berkum explains, this can be one of the most difficult aspects of the job: “In the classical boardroom, people are looking for certainty and I deal in uncertainty. So the biggest difficulty is not a technical difficulty, it’s a mental difficulty.”
What skills does a good CDO need?
Disrupting to benefit a company in the longer term requires some very specific skills and attributes.
“You need to have a firm grasp on numbers to really understand how thing work,” says van Berkum. And Mashkov agrees: “Analytics are beyond important here because you have to back up your claims with numbers.” If you’re trying new ways of doing things, you have to be able to evaluate your success using concrete evidence.
You also need to be creative, able to think outside the box and look at problems from multiple perspectives, to see things in a new light. And to do that successfully, you must have your finger on the pulse of a lot of different areas- become a ‘jack-of-all trades’ according to Mashkov.
For example, you need to know about the latest technology trends, recent academic research, political developments and more. Van Berkum compares it with creating a fruit smoothie – you need a variety of ingredients to get a successful result.
People skills are also vital. After all, if you’re the person upsetting the accepted way of doing things and causing discomfort, you must be able to communicate the importance of what you’re doing and persuade people that it’s necessary.
“You need to be able to convince people,” says van Berkum, “To climb on the stage and tell them that the world is flat and they believe it.”
And being prepared to experiment is also a prerequisite for a CDO. Mashkov sees it as pulling a single thread from a tangled ‘bundle’.
“I think there’s disruption everywhere,” he says. “That’s why it’s so important to be multi-talented and know a little bit about everything, to see where to pull the thread. And then as you pull it, you learn more and more about that department or that area.” But of course, when you choose a thread, you don’t know what (if anything!), you’re going to find.
“You might pull a thread and find out there’s nothing there – it’s a dead end,” continues Mashkov. “Until you pull it, you don’t see it. When you have everything all mixed up, you can’t see what connects to what.” This difficulty in being able to quantify the value of spending your time on a problem, especially if the outcome is negative, is another challenge for the CDO.
And ultimately, you need a level of self-confidence: “You have to be comfortable with criticism and you have to be comfortable with being wrong, because you might start with a thesis but it could be disproven,” says Mashkov.
A 2017 PwC study found that 19% of the biggest 2,500 companies worldwide have appointed a CDO or equivalent, compared with 6% in 2015, making this a fast-growing career opportunity. A CDO would generally be part of the C-suite team, comparable with the Chief Information Officer or Chief Technical Officer. Salaries for a CDO would be comparable to C-suite, averaging $250k.
Is the CDO role for you?
There’s no doubt that the role of CDO is definitely increasing in importance as organizations realize the necessity of disruption to their future success. If you have an insatiable curiosity about how the world works, can approach problems creatively, are comfortable with the uncertainties of the role, and are confident enough to handle criticism and pushback from others, then this job could suit you well.
Are you being paid fairly? Sign up with Paysa and find out.