Don Quixote – Disruption anno 1605

When we talk about ‘Disruption’ we normally think in terms of established  businesses being challenged by new entrants in the 21st century: We think of AirBNB in the accommodation industri, Uber in the transportation/taxi industri or digital photo wiping out Kodak and Fuji Film. Disruption means that incumbent players in a particular industry find themselves in dire straits as the results of new players offering a better – and often radically different – value proposition. And disruption is the result of new digital technologies removing traditional competition barriers.

Allow me to disrupt your thinking. Disruption is nothing new, disruption is not the subject of digital technology and certainly disruption is not just a concern for the business world. Anybody can be hit by a ‘disruption sledgehammer’ at any time anywhere – by anybody! This is what we all need to understand and be prepared for.

Let me try to clarify my point by using a brilliant more than 400 year old disruption example:

In 1605 the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra published his book ‘Don Quixote’ – or ‘The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha’. Even today, more than 400 years later ‘Don Quixote’ is rightfully considered one of the most important novels ever written, and it stands as a lighthouse in the literature world.

But if we think of ‘Don Quixote’ as a masterpiece today, it was nothing less than an earthquake when it hit the market. First in Spain, and then across the world. ‘Why?’ you might ask yourself. I think it was because if offered readers a completely new take on what a story was in medieval times. It was truly disruptive.

Before ‘Don Quixote’ writers traditionally published stories about chivalric romance. Their work consisted of stories featuring the same characters and settings with little exploration of the inner life of even the main character. Whilst often imaginative stories about individual knights in shining armour wandering the land, searching for evil to slay and ladies to rescue, also often quite predictable stories and one dimensional.

And in this world of predictability and dullness comes ‘Don Quixote’. A book where our hero – the gentleman Don Quixote – is so besotted with reading chivalric romance books that he loses his mind and begins to believe that the books he reads are real. So together with his loyal squire Sancho Panza, Don Quixote sets out to revive chivalry, undo wrongs, and bring justice to the world. This leads to one more absurd situation and rescue mission by Don Quixote after the other, and as a reader it keeps you spellbound all the way through 100s of pages. In one famous passage Don Quixote’s attacks windmills that he believes to be ferocious giants. Don Quixote also has a tendency to intervene violently in matters irrelevant to himself and to leave unpaid bills to Sancho.

I encourage you to read the book yourself. It is truly a great book! But hopefully already in this very short introduction you sense that Don Quixote is like nothing else printed at its time. I am sure you also see the disruption taking place – a totally new grib on storytelling. Actually, because readers loved Don Quixote demand for de Cervantes’ book was so high that within a few months his publishers began work on a second edition. Almost unheard of in the early 17th century.

Don Quixote is considered the first ever novel. And when the Nobel Institute polled 100 leading authors in 2002 to name the single most important literary work, Don Quixote was a handsome winner; no other book came close.

Back to my main point: Disruption is nothing new as the story of Don Quixote demonstrates. However, Don Quixote also underscores the central point that disruption can happen anywhere at any time – and often when we least expect it.

So I urge you to remember two things here:

  • You, me, us, anybody can disrupt or be disrupted. More than anything else disruption is mostly about rethinking conventions and see value creation in completely new terms. Why don’t you do the rethinking instead of waiting for it to happen to you.
  • Be prepared for disruption: Never ever become complacent or think of yourself, your job, your company or your industry as safe. Nothing is safe, everything will change. And what does separate 2016 from 1605 is that the change is likely to happen at an ever increasing pace.

Start your new ‘disruption’ mindset by better understanding the major macro drivers in society, how and why disruption happened to others and how existing value creation is being challenged. But most of all: Accept and embrace disruption: Act or be acted upon. Don’t fight windmills!

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