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The disruptive, communicative and authentic Mr Clegg

Last week a few unrelated threads of work and news combined, to prompt me into reflective mode. I was thinking about a workshop on corporate disruption that I will be leading with the very fine Improvement Community of Practice (Hampshire). I was reflecting on an excellent white paper produced by Know You More called Developing the Future Today (see Then came the news that Nick Clegg was joining Facebook as their Head of Global Affairs and Communications. These events prompted memories of the times leading up to the formation of the Conservative Lib Deb coalition and an amusing recollection of a fleeting meeting with Mr Clegg after that coalition had come to an end.

I started by wondering whether NC’s gate crashing the political leadership scene in 2010 was an example of disruption. Afterall, the original definition of disruptive innovation* is when a disruptive newcomer snatches market share from the current market leader, who is referred to as the incumbent. This tends to happen as the incumbent strives for more sophisticated and expensive ways to woo their customers. Eventually, they leave a gap at the bottom of the market for a disruptor to come in with a better value product which is eventually accessible to the mass market.

If you allow that politics is a product/service then it seems to me that in 2010 (really, that long ago!?) the Camerons and Browns of this world were communicating about their ‘products’ to an increasingly small proportion of the population. Their actions left a gap in the market; a sizeable one. People needed to hear from good communicators, with ideas delivered with honesty and authenticity. Step forward Mr Clegg, the disruptor (?). For me he delivered on all three of these fronts, whether or not you agreed with his politics, and certainly the incumbents were caught short in the televised debates involving all the party leaders. If his rise to a position of authority in government does not align with the definition of disruption then perhaps his political fate does. While his tangible honesty and authenticity were still considerable assets his role in the coalition seemed to neutralise them. Like some industrial disruptors he was neutralised by absorption into the incumbent’s camp and his capacity to disrupt or innovate was reduced. The fate of the Lib Dems in the 2015 election is a parallel for those disruptors that don’t take on the incumbent with the right strategy from the outset!

Anyway, to that amusing recollection. Sometime ago, we went to a gig at Kew Gardens, in 2016 I think. The Gypsy Kings were headlining and the expectation was one of music infused by flamenco and a picnic infused with wine! We went early to have a look around the gardens and had the curious experience of having to leave them at normal garden closure time to join a queue to get back into Kew for the concert! We found ourselves joining a line, several people wide, snaking all around the main entrance to the gardens and well beyond in the general direction of Richmond.

As we all waited patiently for the gates to open we saw a quietly agitated man weaving in and out of the crowd. He came and went on a couple of occasions and eventually appeared to pluck up the courage to say to us ‘would you mind dreadfully moving from this part of the pavement as I have a friend coming to visit who will need to be able to park here?’ The fairly densely packed crowd concertined to create a neat car-shaped gap and the waiting was resumed. Only the queuing etiquette of the British would allow for such a gap to come into being and then for that empty space to be respected!

After some time a people carrier arrived, slowly crawling through the crowds who were meandering all over the roads and pavements, with the exception of the parking space which remained empty as if protected by some force field. Partial recognition of the driver was quickly followed be a collective appreciation that the driver was none other than Nick Clegg himself. If he was hoping for a quiet arrival at his friend’s place, he must have been disappointed.

As it was, everybody did what they could to ensure that his parking experience was a comfortable as possible. Yours truly was responsible for providing directions from behind during the complex reverse parking manoeuvre. There was some fun to be had by those within earshot in advising ‘left a bit’ then ‘right a bit’ followed by ‘just keep it central’ and Nick responded in good part to it. I found it quite striking that no one took advantage to have a go, in fact there was a sense of respect for his completely natural behaviour in this unscripted situation. Shortly after, Nick made it into the house and the queue started moving. As we were swept beyond the car we noticed the orange hazard lights were still flashing. It was almost too symbolic, a portent of the loss of his parliamentary seat a year later or, on a shorter time scale, a flat battery on departure!

Fast forward to the present day and Sir Nick is now taking on a senior position in an organisation which has a major influence on our interactions with friends and colleagues, whether local or on the other side of the world. No doubt some will say that he is showing poor judgement and others might have a political view on his decision to take this position. For me, I wish him all the best. While linking him with disruptive innovation might have been stretching a point, I do find him a trustworthy and authentic person, two attributes I set great store by. I am pleased that an organisation with Facebook’s societal influence has a mouthpiece with a preference for both honesty and authenticity. I wonder whether being a mean reverse parker will serve his purpose well too!

* Thanks to Clayton Christensen and apologies to him for playing fast and loose with his theory – to rebalance the books please go read the excellent update on his 1990’s introduction of disruptive innovation. You will find it in the Harvard Business Review, 2015.

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