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Throw some grenades and challenge the norm & upset the apple cart

13th Sep 23 7:29 am

Many years ago when I was working for a major global oil company as head of shops marketing, I learned a great deal from the senior directors above me…

…they were mostly much older than me but they had such a wealth of experience that I would seek often as a hungry, ambitious exec trying to move, learn and grow quickly.

The oil industry and retail petrol stations were going through huge transition and change at the time, and a common mantra in the industry was that ‘Comfort is the enemy of achievement’… Change is always uncomfortable, and it took strong leadership to be willing to drive the pace and level of change required, but I am so glad that I was surrounded by strong leaders who weren’t afraid to ‘Throw Grenades’

One of the senior managers used to have a saying about “Throwing Grenades’ that has often come to mind for me in life and business.

Basically, if a meeting or project was just cruising along, or he thought/felt that the team had become too ‘harmonised’ but not necessarily progressing, he would ‘throw a grenade’. This meant making a statement that was to the contrary or very disruptive to the popular consensus. This normally led to many of the meeting or project participants becoming frustrated or confused, and many would immediately take a side:

– Some would take his position and agree with him, not necessarily because they believed it, but sometimes just to ‘fit in’ with the senior guy,

– Whilst others would dig in to their original belief and/or argue the case for their current position/solution…

….in all cases it led to a greater degree of debate, and flushed out whether people were just being lazy passengers in the meeting, or whether they were positioning, and arguing, what they truly believed was the best solution or route forward.

One day I discussed this with the ‘grenade thrower’ and he was very matter of fact about it, saying:

“When I throw grenades it is primarily to stimulate the participants to take a position and or strongly challenge it, and often it would flush out a few people that had contrary/conflicting views that would/could lead to a better place but were ‘going with the flow’ rather than ‘upsetting the apple cart’

Upset the apple cart is an idiom which means changed the established order of things.

It is a reference to the way that carts for selling apples are traditionally stacked in a neat and orderly manner. This keeps the round(ish) apples from rolling out of the cart and all over the floor.

If you pull an apple from the wrong spot, the entire neat stack will fall apart and you have “upset the apple cart.”

The metaphor implies that by making a drastic change to people’s understanding or way of doing something, it causes a chain reaction where other assumptions have to be re-examined.

Today ‘disruption’ has become a popular word in business, especially with entrepreneurs who want to ‘disrupt’ the current ‘status quo’ in favour of a better, faster, cheaper or more relevant solution… and very much fits with the metaphor of upsetting the apple cart or my colleagues philosophy of ‘throwing grenades’ – not for negative intent or to cause upset or damage, but to stimulate ‘a chain reaction where assumptions have to be re-examined’

Throwing Grenades, upsetting the apple cart or disrupting norm are in my view all variations on the principle of challenging established norms with the intent of finding a better solution. When done with good intent and professional integrity can add value. These days the more commonly used term is ‘DISRUPTION’ or ‘DISRUPTIVE BUSINESS/INNOVATION’ and I believe that the following 2 descriptions capture and suggests why entrepreneurs maybe better placed than conventional/traditional or established businesses to disrupt:

A disruptive innovation or business is an innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market leading firms, products and alliances.

Disruptive innovations tend to be produced by outsiders and entrepreneurs, rather than existing market-leading companies. The business environment of market leaders does not allow them to pursue disruptive innovations when they first arise, because they are not profitable enough at first and because their development can take scarce resources away from sustaining innovations (which are needed to compete against current competition).A disruptive process can take longer to develop than by the conventional approach and the risk associated to it is higher than the other more incremental or evolutionary forms of innovations, but once it is deployed in the market, it achieves a much faster penetration and higher degree of impact on the established markets.

Constructive disruption – the act of productively challenging inherited wisdom or structure – supports innovation by opening up the space to replace what we have with what we might imagine.

So maybe next time you feel a meeting or project is wonderfully harmonious but not progressing, don’t wait for someone, in the words of Gandhi “Be the change you want to see in the world” and try throwing some grenades.

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