The narrative of disruption; people, not data are at the heart

With Disrupt Sydney, in its fifth year, Mandy Geddes, IECL’s General Manager, Education shares with us her insights and some thought-provoking angles. From what it means to live on the edge as a disrupter, to living examples of disruption locally and across the seas, Mandy, like others on that day, were reminded that no matter what the story of disruption being told, people remain central to the discourse.


Last week I attended Disrupt Sydney, the conference, now in its fifth year. All credit to the organisers who disrupted their own thinking of what disruption is and wheeled out a variety of thought-provoking speakers. One thing that was clear throughout the day was that if you want things done, or want to create a new narrative about something, you need to take ownership and find the disrupters (often financed by Corporate Australia). It’s up to us to dictate the course of the narrative that disruption will take. We are at the heart of it. To quote noir-prophet William Gibson, “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed”. 

Living on the edge

Various speakers encouraged would be disrupters to look to the “edge” of the mainstream for the next big thing or area ripe for disruption. Eddie Harran told us about his years working on the edge and “out in the field” for Deloitte, and his efforts to connect that rather large organisation to the fringe of the new. My favourite quote from Eddie: “narrative is this Trojan Horse that allows us to do different things”. I’m not sure exactly what it means, but I’m sure it’s true! Eddie inspired me to talk to the “mavericks” around me every day, to listen to Mindful Cyborgs (a podcast) and investigate The League of Intrapreneurs, and to read The Misfit Economy.

Hack for homelessness

Anne-Marie Elias (@chiefdisrupter) talked about the concept of a “human-centred” tomorrow, reminding us that progress is not progress if we leave people behind. Full marks to Disrupt Sydney for giving some valuable airtime to a quite challenging voice (I know a few “consultants” representing very large firms who felt the challenge). Anne-Marie hosts “hack4homelessness”, a hackathon aimed at solving the growing issue of homelessness in Australia. Anne-Marie is bringing some actual homeless people together with “hackers” to come up with solutions and good for her. One of the ideas from a recent #hack4homelessness was around freeing up vacant hotel rooms and Airbnbs to give homeless people a roof over their heads. 

Should data track us or describe us?

Keith Logan from CapGemini agreed with Laurie Aznavoorian, from Architecture BVN, in saying it’s all about people and therefore with data; “work out what the people want/need, then worry about the tech solution”. This is certainly our approach with our blended learning programs at IECL. Watch the people. How are they working? Communicating? What devices do they use? Which apps? How do they collaborate, naturally? Then use that data to design solutions for that (or adopt them, from what is being used already). Keith asked us to consider “if you had zero constraints, what would you do?” (Reminds me of a great coaching question about having a magic wand…!) and he quoted Einstein who said “if at first the idea is not absurd, there’s no hope for it”. I guess this is what Eddie Harran was talking about…explore the ideas at the fringe.

Can we govern disruption?

Simon Neaverson talked about disruption and governance and how boards need to pre-empt events rather than just respond to them. He talked about the shift in values and approach from boards in Australia since the collapse of HIH (2001) where the board’s view was “I know nothing” to 2007’s Centro collapse where the question was “what should they know?” to 2017’s crisis within 7Eleven where the question became “Did the board create a culture that led to the illegal act?”. So we are maturing, as a society, slowly but surely. The board’s engagement with their workforce has never been more important.

Super Apps and Bicycles

Jeongmin Seong from McKinsey China gave a great presentation with some very startling facts and photos out of China. We know China is huge, and moving fast, and that they are doing things differently, but I don’t think we really get HOW big, and how fast and how different it is there. An image of thousands of rental bicycles squeezed next to a beach and a huge crowd stays with me.

Jeongmin talked about the new China narrative (there’s that word again); China is just getting started, they are going global and they are interested in partnering and enabling solutions. Jeongmin said it’s all about change and when it comes to change we need to pick the people who are good at it and empower them. People want to be asked (collaboration) and they want to be led (leadership). We learnt about China’s version of FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) which is BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent). And how most people in China don’t have credit cards so payments are mobile via QR codes on phones, meaning that there is a massive amount of data coming out of China, even from corner stores (who buys what, when, and for how much?).

Jeongmin talked about the “super app” that does everything for everyone in China (WeChat) and as a result owns all the data on everyone and everything. Hot tip: if you look at nothing else from Disrupt Sydney, look at WeChat, China’s super app and Cambridge Analytica (how Trump won the election…their tagline: Cambridge Analytica uses data to change audience behaviour).

What about the people?

Prof Greg Whitwell of USYD Business School, questioned AI and ethics and whether the coming “age of machines” will be a utopia (does anyone honestly think this?) or a dystopian nightmare. The assumption now is that each and every industry WILL BE DISRUPTED, it’s just a matter of how and when.

But Kai Riemer of USYD business school put it best when he reminded us that “the society we live in is not the same as the economy that we trade in” and I think what he meant by that was that no matter what business does, we have to look to the people aspect, the impact of any disruption on humans, on us. 

Mandy Geddes is IECL’s General Manager, Education and has been a key member of our team since 2002. She manages IECL coach trainings and our Alumni program of continuous professional development throughout the APAC region. She has been instrumental in developing (and now maintaining) our ICF accredited status.

Hero image reference: Laurie Aznavoorian shared this poignant letter from the American Civil War to demonstrate how the (handwritten) word brings meaning.