Warning: this blog post is going to get political.
A common problem I've noticed with potential disruptors is that they have initial success breaking through the noise with a disruptive idea or a disruptive message supported by underlying authentic persona or product, yet as soon as they get the attention they so desired, they start to be criticized by the mainstream pundits for being different or lacking in some respect. So, they immediately tone down the disruption and start trying to appear mainstream, middle-of-the-road, mediocre and above all, not different.
This happens with companies all the time as they mature. They do what MBA schools everywhere teach you to do. You had a disruption. You quickly moved to market leader. Now milk it for maximum profit.
To many, this means optimizing internal efficiency of the business, stripping out costs and uniqueness (because uniqueness carries a cost) to produce goods and services with the highest (theoretical) margins possible. There is a rush by competitors in a marketplace to copy each other's features in a race to the middle where all rough edges are sanded off, nothing is controversial, nothing is extreme. Everyone runs focus groups (which, by the way are worse than useless for pointing to the future and helping with disruption), and all the focus groups tell them exactly the same thing, so they adjust their messages and features and benefits to conform to a mass mediocrity with features that no one really values. All this to maximize their market and appeal to the broadest possible audience. Ironic, isn't it?
This is the conventional wisdom. Get noticed for being different. Move to the middle mainstream as fast as possible. Unfortunately, when it comes to disruption, the conventional wisdom is almost always wrong.
OK Mr. Anti-Marketer, Give Us Some Examples We Can Understand
Without a doubt, if Mr. Obama wins the presidency, he will usher in a new post-racial era in American socialization. It will be no small accomplishment for the first African-American candidate to reach the pinnacle, and become the world's most powerful leader. He has promised change, and certainly in the early days of his campaign, the media and methods by which he delivered that message seemed to resonate as authentic and pure. He had disruptive convictions, and disrupted the primary process. He came from behind as the dark horse visionary, upsetting the Democratic party establishment to win the nomination. He got people excited.
All was going swimmingly, when suddenly a new disruptive force was thrown into the fray. Governor Palin has succeeded by disrupting and disarming at each step of her political career. Unseating incumbents for mayoralty and governorship, taking on her own party's establishment by going direct to the people and espousing a populist message that resonated. Unseat corrupt politicians. Throw out fat cats. A hockey mom indeed, with both charm and grit. If the McCain ticket wins, she'll be the first female vice-president, a populist voice from an outsider state, and will change presidential politics forever just as Obama will if he wins.
Both Obama and Palin were effective in disrupting not just because of their color or sex (although those characteristics are highly symbolic of the change each represented), but because there was authenticity behind the message and symbolism. Neither sought approval of the political establishment, but went direct to the people with powerful ideas representing radically different directions.
Enter Mainstream Spin Doctors and "Handlers"
When disruption is successful, it starts with an unmet or underserved need in the market. The electorate is tired not just of the idiotic "sound bite" bickering in Washington, not just of George Bush, not just of the inability of Congress to get anything done except make sure they break for holidays on time and get their indexed paychecks and pensions, but increasingly of the lack of vision, lack of principle, and destructive actions or inactions that have gotten the country into the mess it is.
Perhaps the most intensely partisan don't feel this way, but certainly everyone without party allegiance does, and many who identify themselves as conservative or liberal, republican or democrat, do as well.
How bad is it?
For the past two weeks, our country's financial system has been on the verge of a train wreck, mostly caused by Congress pushing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to be social tools of government, putting poor and high-risk people in houses they couldn't afford. This pressure from Congress resulted in a bonus system set up in those quasi-governmental corporations which highly incentivized executives for the number of loans underwritten to the poor, rather than the financial prudence of those loans, which of course led to massive corruption and a blind regulatory eye. Corruption in false appraisals, unethical mortgage brokering, fraudulent resale of bad paper, and the packaging and hiding the trail of all those bad loans into securitized products that we all got suckered into buying unknowingly through our 401(k)s and mutual funds. Criminal all around, and not much different from the engineer of a passenger train in LA who caused the worst train accident in American history by texting on his cell phone instead of watching the signals.
While this financial train wreck has been gathering steam, political "leaders" have tried to put together a bailout package, initially that completely picked the pockets of the American taxpayer, but without any upside or guarantees that credit markets would unfreeze. Going through several iterations, it's now almost palatable, but still a horrific penalty for those of us who had nothing to do with it to pay. People like me, in fact, who borrowed responsibly, had significant equity, didn't use my house as a piggy bank, and will never get a penny of relief -- the great hard-working and responsible middle-class being ripped off by both the rich and the poor. And, for what has seemed like an eternity, and with another 10-15% of stock market value erased, politicians have dithered, spending their time blaming each other while claiming to seek a bi-partisan solution.
I suspect there are a lot like me who would just as soon seen the entire house and senate fired and replaced with new blood. Unfortunately, that can't happen. But that zeitgeist is what creates the great unmet and underserved needs of the voters.
We need honesty, integrity, authenticity, people who are working for us rather than themselves. People who aren't trying to line their pockets with lobbyist dollars. People who genuinely want to fix Social Security and the tax system, eliminate corruption, defend the country and its freedoms appropriately, regulate as necessary to ensure fairness and consumer protection, but not over-regulate. Eliminate the dependence on foreign energy supplies that not only threatens national security, but introduces immense instability into our financial markets whenever some tinpot dictator wants to throw his weight around. Throw the entire health system in the garbage and start over. And lead with vision, creativity, thoughtfulness and energy.
We need disruptive change.
So that's the foment into which we have not one, but two potentially disruptive choices thrown. At first, Obama seemed fresh, new, articulate, genuine, of the people. He used modern tools like blogs and texting to go direct to the people, bypassing the political establishment. As a result, he generated excitement and fanatical fervor. He disrupted the Democratic party establishment and ultimately won the nomination over the hands-down favorite, Hilary Clinton.
McCain, yesterday's maverick, lacked energy and appeared dispirited and fast on the way to losing. Of course, he had an albatross necktie in George Bush, the most unpopular president ever, but that didn't account for his own relegation to the sidelines as old news while Barack seemed the heir apparent.
McCain knew that he needed a disruption of his own, and went with the brilliant choice of Governor Palin as his running mate. Another fresh face, untainted by Washington politics. High energy. Another historic choice, guaranteeing that no matter who wins the election, we will either have the first black president or first woman vice president. She shook things up quickly with her personality and charm and track record.
Then they got "crammed" by the mainstream
Obama was first. He became imperious, arrogant, above the people not of the people, elitist, clamping down on innovation, touting the party line and the same repetitious negative mantras we've come to hear from every politician before him. When questioned about specifics, he dodged the questions, having been advised by handlers apparently that all he had to do was say nothing to win. Saying something affirmative about his plans was a risk. When challenged, he began changing his position on every issue of significance, moving towards the middle, but in a non-specific enough way that we now have no idea what his intentions are if he wins. All the positive energy of change, the disruption of authenticity, of talking and listening to the people, of any semblance of integrity was lost in very short order. The mainstream owns Obama, and any likelihood of disruptive change was flushed down the toilet. He's just another political hack who wants to win at any cost.
Next was Palin. This has been painful to watch because it's happened so quickly. She was disruptive because she was of the people. Her accent was annoying to many, but undeniably of a place. Many mocked her as sounding stupid, or said she was inexperienced, but in reality it was mainstream carping, both from the political establishment and the media. Her accomplishments actually were the sort that matter to the electorate. Balancing the budget, reducing expenditures, selling off unnecessary luxury assets, attacking corruption. All the while succeeding against the odds -- unseating an incumbent governor from her own party from the position of mayor of a small town. Palin was the living embodiment of Ms. Smith Goes to Washington.
Most of all, what the people, as opposed to the elites, liked about her was her authenticity. She didn't know everything, by any stretch, but that didn't matter. She was trustworthy, not because she had 30 years of experience with foreign governments or because she knew how to work the backrooms and do corrupt deals to move legislation along, but because she didn't. Amazingly accomplished in her short career, untainted, she had demonstrated real leadership, and an ability to take on challenges bigger than herself and win. The kind of leadership that's been missing in Washington for a few generations. Heck, she could have been running for president for all the masses cared.
But then the handlers got a hold of her. She wasn't allowed to change her convention speech script, which quickly made her sound contrived and programmed. She was locked away from the media to be groomed so she'd know exactly what to say and how to handle the gotcha questions. And the net effect? When finally allowed out of the room to do an interview, she didn't sound herself. She was too cautious, too much "on message", too scripted, yet not well enough prepared. In a few short weeks, the mainstreamers stripped her of the number one quality that made her popular -- her genuineness, her hockey-momness, her rural up-country sound and attitude, her authenticity.
Dissatisfaction is Run Amok
So, the things we most liked about Obama and about Palin are mostly gone now. Obama has no chance of redemption -- he is thoroughly a politician, cut from the same cloth as all that came before. Disingenuous, contrived, manipulative, truth distorting, vote chasing, deceiving, power-hungry, willing to say or do anything to win. No longer any potential to disrupt in any way. We saw this most plainly in his and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's message manipulation around the financial crisis to finger point at the republicans while claiming they were the ones being bipartisan. Excuse me, Ms. Pelosi -- bipartisanship, by definition, is a two-way street, both sides share in credit and/or blame. You can't be bipartisan if you're blaming the other side. I resent you playing games with the financial health of my country to gain political points. And, rather than assume a leadership role, which would have involved some risk, and by the way, proved that he had what it takes to be president, Mr. Obama chose to "phone it in". They just don't get it.
Ms. Palin has gone a long way down the same path, as her stumbling in the media interviews clearly demonstrates. But she has one last chance to disrupt this election in the vice presidential debate tonight. If she returns to being herself, is willing to speak off the cuff, throws off all the trash that's been loaded on to her by McCain's handlers, and is willing to make a mistake or two to make a point, then she will disrupt, and I predict the McCain ticket will win because of it. If she does not, they will lose.
Hard to believe it all comes down to this, but that's the way disruption works. You gotta be authentic. You gotta know what you are and be true to it. You can't be everything to everyone, unless you want to be nothing to anyone. Yup, I said it first. This is Governor Palin's election to win or lose, and it all comes down to whether she's given in to the mainstream, or whether she chooses to go with what got her there in the first place and disrupt the status quo.
My advice to Sarah? There is no shame in being who you are and making a mistake that takes you down in defeat. There is a lot to be ashamed of if you sacrifice your integrity because you think that's what it takes to win. Go back to square one, and be yourself. The electorate still wants change, and will vote for the side they think can deliver it and truly represent them with, regardless of the last two weeks. If neither side offers genuine change, then the Democrats win by default, because it was always theirs to lose.
It Works the Same for Disruptive Innovators in Business
You have to start with a product that resonates. You have to meet an unmet or under-served need. Both Obama and Palin resonated with the electorate, although in very different ways. Then, you've got to stay true to your message. If you are the creator of the most desired and elegant products on the planet, as Apple has become, then you have to keep doing it. That's what your audience values, and it's why they buy from you. If Apple were to drop a bomb on the market like Microsoft's Vista, how long do you think we'd respect them for? You can't race to the mainstream middle and still be a disruptor. You have to continue to resonate.
Full Disclosure Section
I am a supporter of neither republicans nor democrats. I'm that elusive independent sort that everyone is chasing. And, that's why all this matters. Those who are allied to one or the other party have already made up their minds, and they are split 50-50. And, that's why disruption is playing a role. It's people like me that are going to decide this thing, and we don't care about political dogma, in fact, we despise it. The sooner you stop repeating the same tired lines, drop the "speaking points" and tell us what we want to know, the more likely you are to win. And, don't forget the genuineness, authenticity, integrity, trustworthiness, leadership, and being willing to stand for something and mean it.
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