Wayne Hsiung

Published on:

February 23, 2016

5 Lessons on Disruptive Change from Tech Innovators

What can tech breakthroughs show us about having an impact on the world? 

by Wayne Hsiung

Most of us want to be a change agent -- the sort of person who leads progress rather than holds it back. But creating change is hard. People (including you and me) are set in their ways, and even when we seem to make progress, it often disappears in the blink of an eye. 

There’s one area, though, where enduring change is common: tech innovation. And, as a tech lawyer who has seen dozens of startups thrive or die, there are 5 lessons we can learn from tech innovators about how to create permanent, disruptive change.

  Chain reactions are key to change.
Chain reactions are key to change.

1. If it doesn’t scale, it will fail.

In many ways, Facebook had everything going against it. It was started by a college dropout who was, by all accounts, an average programmer using stolen ideas. But Facebook had one advantage that overwhelmed all its weaknesses: it could “scale.”

When you talked to your friends about a funny image on Facebook, it made your friends want to use it too. And they influenced their friends. And they influenced their friends. And suddenly the entire world was on Facebook. Chain reactions, in short, allowed Facebook to scale from one user to a billion. 

As activists, we need to find similar scaling effects. Most activism fails this test. The focus on changing people’s individual consumer habits is one example. While it’s a noble endeavor, the change (if it happens) stops at a single user. A passive vegan won't change anyone. 

A focus on building a movement of activists, in contrast, fuels itself. Activists create more activists, who create more activists, and so on. When we make an activist, the change doesn’t stop there. It just starts another chain of good.

  To make change, you have to do something new.
To make change, you have to do something new.

2. It’s new, or it’s nothing.

Say you have two possible tweets to post. Which is more likely to reach a bigger audience? Computers have become surprisingly good at picking between the two, which might make many of us start seeing Skynet. But it turns out all of you social media superstars have nothing to fear from AI. The reason? Computers, while great at choosing which of two options will more likely go viral, are absolutely terrible at creating content. Because the latter task, it turns out, requires novelty. What was great yesterday is almost by definition not going to be great tomorrow. Creating change requires that we try something new.

The same is true of activism. When DxE spoke to Prof. Erica Chenoweth about the lessons to learn from her massive study of social movements, she said there was one ironclad rule: doing the same thing over and over again never works. Yet, too often, that is exactly what social movements do. We simply copy the tactics we've already used, without creative modification, and don't realize that this is the one strategy that is guaranteed to fail.

To create social change, we first have to find the change in ourselves.

  We can't know what will cause change. All we can do is react when we see it happening.
We can't know what will cause change. All we can do is react when we see it happening.

3. Measure and react.

But how do we know which ideas are novel and good? The answer, as tech researcher Duncan Watts has put it, is that we don’t. In a highly complex, uncertain, and changing world, predictions are foolhardy. The best strategies for innovation are grounded in what Watts calls “measure and react”: Find a good hypothesis. Execute it to your best of your ability. Then measure the results and go full throttle if it starts to pick up.

The great thing about this is that, even if a strategy is not the best one, if it starts to get traction it can still become a winning strategy. This is what drives much of the music industry -- not great art, necessarily, but flexible strategies that allow publishing companies to invest heavily once an artist starts to gain traction. The quality of the artist’s music is not, actually, all that important as long as it gets enough initial traction. (Do any of us actually enjoy listening to Justin Bieber?)

Activists must learn the same lesson. We don’t know what will work, and because of that, we spend far too much time navel-gazing over how effective our tactics are. What matters, if Watts is right, is not trying to predict what will work, in a world that is highly unpredictable, but rather trying new things, measuring, and adapting quickly when something catches on. This is exactly what DxE has done with challenges such as #DogMeatPlease or #DisruptSpeciesism, provocative tactics such as open rescue, and community programs such as DxE Connections. We try a lot of things -- not pretending to know for sure what will work -- then we invest heavily when we see that it’s catching on.

  Great teams are the key to driving change.
Great teams are the key to driving change.

4. The team matters as much as the idea.

In an early episode of the podcast Startup, a famous tech investor is talking about what makes for a great startup. Is it great ideas? No. Is it great resources? Also no -- after all, there’s plenty of money being thrown around in Silicon Valley. The key distinguishing factor between startups that thrive and startups that die? The drive, tenacity, creativity, and enthusiasm of the team. Because it turns out that even great ideas will die if they’re executed by bad teams.

What are the team attributes that matter most? Google has examined dozens of its own teams and found five key attributes. But we can really distill all five into one: integrity -- being honest and ethical to ourselves, and to one another. Even bad tactics can thrive with great teams, and even great tactics will suffer from toxic, selfish team dynamics. This is why DxE places integrity front and center in everything we do, and when we see a failure of integrity, we point it out immediately and try to constructively resolve it.

5. Fail, and fail fast.

Fear of failure drives all of us. But what if failure is a good thing? Steve Jobs is perhaps most famous for being a repeat failure -- a hack engineer, a college dropout, and an ousted CEO. But the important thing about Jobs’ failures is that: (a) they were the result of big dreams and big risks; (b) he learned from them; and (c) he moved on quickly.

This is a recurring story we hear from the annals of innovation, where many great technologies are created by people who’ve failed the first 100 times they tried.

This is something we should learn in activism, too. Failure is our friend. Because it’s inevitable (at least if we're trying to solve hard problems). It teaches us. And it gives us the tenacity to keep fighting.

  To make change, we first have to be brave enough to fail.
To make change, we first have to be brave enough to fail.

DxE isn’t afraid of failure. Early in our network’s history, we had spent perhaps 100 hours developing a “gamification” system to motivate people to activism. But the activists hated it because because it was too hard to use. So we quickly threw the program away and tried something new and better, which became DxE Meetups and Working Groups -- more organic and informal ways to create the social structure necessary to develop activists. We succeeded, in short, by being willing to fail.


The bigger picture is that, too often, activists don’t understand what actually drives change. We think too small, and too incremental. We try to measure things that we can’t. And perhaps most important, we ignore the home run strategies that, historically, have driven the most disruptive change. 

We can correct that, though, by taking these five lessons to heart. Focus on scale. Be novel. Measure and react. Build great teams. And don’t be afraid to fail (but fail fast). 

If we think like innovators, we can change the world.