Dancing to a disruptive beat

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If delegates have a drink for every time they hear variations on the word "disruption" at this week's Skoll World Forum, they'll be quite intoxicated. Wait – many of them are, at least with their own disruptiveness. 

Disruption, which used to mean a trip to the principal's office, is the coin of the realm at this 10th annual gathering of social entrepreneurs at the Said Business School at Oxford University.

Jeff Skoll, the eBay billionaire turned philanthropist and film producer, ended his welcome speech, "Let's disrupt our way to a different world." Premal Shah, the president of Kiva, the crowdfunded microfinance site, said in a filmed interview: "The problems of this world are so big and so urgent that they demand disruptive thinking." Annie Lennox, the singer and global anti-AIDs campaigner, told the audience: "I want to disrupt the entire media." Gemma Mortensen of Crisis Action, which mobilizes civic groups to protect civilians from armed conflict, said her organization "disrupts inequality inherent in the status quo".

Social entrepreneurs adopted disruption from the world of technology, where it has been in vogue at least since business strategist Clayton Christensen warned corporate chiefs in his book The Innovator's Dilemma that "disruptive innovation" could undermine even well-entrenched incumbents by changing the shape of entire industries. 

The basic notion was that new technologies that at first seemed clunky or even useless could nibble at the fringes of established markets with performance that was good enough for marginal customer groups. Over time, as performance improved and prices dropped, even core customers would defect to the new approach. The triumph of PCs over mainframe computers is a classic case study; the proliferation of smartphones and tablets at the expense of PCs is a more recent example. 

In the social sphere, there are certainly hidebound institutions and obsolete systems that are in need of radical overhaul. And there are unmet needs for which ever-cheaper technology, such as mobile connectivity or photovoltaic solar panels, makes new solutions possible.

"I'm pro-disruption," said Matt Miller, a columnist for the Washington Post and author of The Tyranny of Dead Ideas. "America's very ripe for disruption in its health care sector, its education sector."  

But not all activism is disruptive in the system-change sense. With some notable exceptions, much of the work of social entrepreneurs is more in the mode of slow boring of small holes than it is in dynamiting entire industries. Jacqueline Novogratz, who heads the Acumen Fund, a pioneering impact investment fund, called the kind of entrepreneurial leadership that is required "bonecrushingly exhausting" and said she sensed "a growing sense of weariness" in the social entrepreneurship community.

“I’ve never felt more excited by what is possible,” Novogratz said after the talk. “I simply wanted to voice the reality that disruption and going against the status quo is not for the faint of heart!”

And Molly Melching, an activist against female genital cutting in Africa, shared a cautionary tale about the consequences of social disruption without adequate consideration of human costs.

Melching, who has lived in Senegal for nearly four decades and is a founder of the group Tostan, in 1997 helped a mass movement to end the traditional practice of female genital cutting.    

In July 1997, Tostan helped organize 35 women in the village of Malicounda Bambara, who announced they were renouncing the practice. What happened next caused Tostan to reevaluate its strategy. Relatives were outraged and felt betrayed that the women had publicly renounced a shared custom. Violence ensued. 

"The action led to disruption of social harmony and distrust of the extended network," Melching said. "Disruption can lead to anger and blockage."

A village leader helped them understand the opposition stemmed not from the decision to end the practice itself, but the way in which they had announced it. Tostan began working with the most conservative elders of the communities and helped them become leaders of the movement. The next year, 13 villages recounted cutting in front of local elders, government officials and NGOs. Since then, 5,000 villages have done so. Within three years, Melching said, Senegal could become the first country to end the practice completely. 

"Disruption is often necessary yes, but instead of being confrontational, the disruption can be organized from within and can be much more effective and sustainable," she said. "Once a critical mass is achieved, then we can have a new social norm."