Thought Leadership
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February 16, 2021
Eight Principles to Master the Art of Disruption
Nitin Rakesh
Chief Executive Officer And Executive Director
Tags: leadership

This point of view article originally published on Fortune CEO Initiative,, authored by Nitin Rakesh, Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director, Mphasis. The FORTUNE CEO Initiative is a global leadership collective committed to enacting meaningful social change. Click here for the article


What could pet food retailers have in common with media streaming companies and videoconferencing platforms? On the face of it, nothing at all. But if you have been following reports about companies that have surged ahead during the pandemic, it includes among the frontrunners a relatively incongruous online pet supplies retailer: Chewy.

The online-only pet food company founded in 2011 saw a 46 percent jump in year-on-year first-quarter sales in 2020 with record subscription purchases of over USD 1 billion. Fueling its unprecedented growth were shelter-in-place orders that compelled pet owners to do what Chewy’s leadership has always wanted: persuade its customers to purchase more of their pet supplies online. The online retailer also gained from the coming together of trends that have been gathering momentum over the years: the confluence of technology, the disruption of brick-and-mortar businesses, and the rise of the empowered consumer.

COVID-19 is not a run-of-the-mill crisis. The pandemic shows no signs of abating, and countries that have attempted to reopen their schools and economies slowly are having have to consider strategies to ensure everyone’s continued safety.

And yet to return to what Winston Churchill once said, businesses must never ‘waste a good crisis.’ They must learn, as Chewy demonstrably has, to make the most of the opportunities that a crisis such as this ‘makes possible.’ As a seasoned industry leader who has always viewed adversity as a time that businesses can also use to regroup and recalibrate their game, I believe the current pandemic offers all enterprises a rare opportunity to master the art of disruption and reinvent themselves for the next. This requires the implementation of eight broad principles. Let us take a closer look.

The first of these principles is to challenge your existing mental models. When a crisis comes along, most of the accepted values, approaches, and behaviors lose relevance because they were created in the past to serve different purposes. Enterprises must make room to welcome new ways of thinking and working that are adapted to the current times.

A second principle is a need for businesses to reinvent their approach to their stakeholders. For example, it may have been all right so far to treat customers as a separate entity from what a business does and how it functions. This is not going to work anymore. Enterprises will need to become far more personally involved in understanding, predicting, and delivering what their stakeholders need and want. Businesses should ask themselves who their customers are and what values they are driven by. Because this will help businesses tweak, revise, and recreate their approaches better to meet their stakeholders’ current and future needs.

The third proposition to adopt is the need for speed. By their nature, crises involve sudden and extensive upheavals. Adapting to change requires the ability not only to be flexible but also fast. Nothing aids this more than digital transformation done to improve and refine personalization. Already, it is clear that organizations—whether in the healthcare or entertainment sectors—that have used the lockdown to enhance their digital capabilities can offer highly personalized experiences.

The fourth principle is for businesses to relook at their talent strategy and assess how they acquire and keep talent in line with where the business is and where it wants to go. Typically, enterprises tend to carry on with old ways of recruiting (and keeping) employees. Nearly everybody is a full-time resource and hired locally. As the pandemic has made amply clear, work need not suffer just because people can’t ‘show up’ at a workplace. Some of the most creative, collaborative, and high-quality work can be done by teams of professionals, remotely, and by contractual employees.

The fifth principle is the ability to design for what I would call adjacencies. Consider, for example, what two Italian architects did when their country was facing an acute shortage of ICU beds. They designed ICU pods within a shipping container. Built to enable speedy deployment at hospitals that had run short of ICU beds, these pods can be quickly transported and set up inside hospitals that urgently needed additional ICU facilities. The final three principles that I recommend businesses adopt are closely interlinked: the need to embrace innovation, build initiatives across horizons, and renew a focus on network orchestration. Firms must strive to experiment and push boundaries. They must also prepare as well as they can for the present and the future. And as multiple cutting-edge companies like Uber and Amazon have demonstrated, businesses must be ready to leverage networks rather than aim to only compete against peers within narrowly confined domain silos.

The pandemic may be the biggest disruption we have faced in our living memory, but it will certainly not be the last. To prepare themselves to stay ahead, now and in the future, businesses will do well to remain agile and innovative, plan for any exigencies, and learn to operate as players in a larger network. Together, these principles will ensure that firms can put their best foot forward, now and in the years ahead.