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Surfing the waves of disruption

View profile for Robin Johnston
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Think of the word ‘disruption’ and it will likely conjure up negative connotations – something that holds you back or creates a barrier. However, disruption can often be a force for good. Through the ages, innovators have improved or revolutionised business, commerce and industry – having a positive impact on how the world lives in the process.

Disruption is nothing new but, in the 21st century, its pace and power is. The technologies, products and services that will dominate in 2025 probably haven’t been invented yet.

Historically, disruptors had to wait while the world caught on to their vision due to the speed of the dominant means of communication at the time. This was certainly the case for those involved in developing the railways and telephony or forging the industrial revolution.  Today, thanks to the speed of fibre optics and satellite communication, an innovative concept can be distributed and shared among millions of people in a matter of minutes.

It’s astonishing to think that Google was founded only 20 years ago. At the time, the dominant search engine was Altavista – ever heard of it?

Internet Explorer, Netscape and AOL were the main web browsers in 1998. Safari wasn’t invented until 2003. Now, IOS and Android dominate a smartphone market which didn’t even exist until 2007. Nokia ruled the mobile phone industry at the time.

In 2000, Whitbread Breweries took the decision to sell off their 250-year-old brewing operation and concentrate on owning Marriott hotels, Whitbread pubs and David Lloyd Health clubs. Today, it doesn’t own any of these brands, instead concentrating on Costa coffee and Premier Inn. The change of direction was controversial in 2000 but is now seen as visionary.

By some estimates we’re less than a decade away from driverless freight lorries and taxis being the norm on our roads, with obvious implications for lorry and taxi drivers.

I like to think of disruption, innovation and evolution as waves crashing on the seashore – we cannot stop them from coming, but we can choose which ones to surf.

Business owners have a choice – one which they have faced through the generations – embrace disruption for what it is and exploit the opportunity it presents, or resist the forces of evolution only to be overwhelmed and consumed by them eventually.

In the last decade, I’ve seen numerous clients struggle to turn their established family businesses around against the tide of inevitable change. My own industry, legal services, has changed significantly in that time and the waves of change and disruption hitting lawyers (Blockchain, smart contracts, machine learning, Artificial Intelligence, remote working etc.) show no signs of letting up. The biggest impact is on the smaller firms, as partners nearing retirement struggle to make sense of the disruption and plan for their succession.

My mission is to help business owners recognise disruption in their industries and turn it to their advantage, transforming their businesses and securing their futures. The choice is stark. If you don’t surf the wave, you will never make it to shore.

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