Disruption gets a bad rap. We are quick to see it as a faceless villain itching to lay waste to our future prospects. But shattering the status quo is positive and necessary. We call that type of change innovation. It happens when smart people with guts and irrepressible creative energy are left to their own devices.

Greg Larkin, who was a guest on a recent Association 4.0 podcast, is one of those iconoclasts. I’d love to visit an association where everyone got a dose of Greg’s unique vitamin (I)nvention. His take on leadership, business, associations, and the future is always fascinating. I hope you enjoy this snapshot of a conversation that left me with more questions than answers, a place where I always love to be.

Greg is the author of This Might Get Me Fired.” He is also CEO of Punks and Pinstripes, and as you might guess, it’s a one-of-a-kind organization. Here’s how Greg describes the group.

“Punks and Pinstripes is an executive network for two demographics. The first group is punks who are masquerading as “suits.” Like Clark Kent, the pinstripes are diversionary stand-ins for moto jackets and shredded jeans. They are executive leaders of large organizations who are wired differently. They are irreverent and have a vision of where the company and the industry needs to go that is hard for other people to hear.

“The second category is corporate leaders who abandoned the Brooks Brothers lifestyle to launch revolutionary entrepreneurial ventures.  

“We’re a bastion for the square pegs in round holes, people who are more motivated by making an impact than by trying to climb the ladder. Punks have the courage to speak truth to power and to be disliked. They get invited to places like Davos, but it’s not their speed. We’re a community that’s designed for rule-breakers, and we help each other through the hard stuff. I like to think of us as having the insatiable curiosity of Anthony Bourdain while everyone else is following directions from Martha Stewart.”

I identified with Greg’s description. Early in my career, I was an intrapreneur heading a for-profit web development business under the umbrella of an association. At that time, what we were trying to accomplish was outside the scope of most imaginations. The typical response was to ignore us. Benign neglect was a good thing because we had the independence to successfully run the business. But it would have been inspiring to belong to a group of like-minded innovators.

Step Forward to the Truth

The association industry still leans toward the status quo. I asked Greg how he would advise leaders to help step out of their comfort zone and prepare for disruption.

How will you step out of your comfort zone and prepare for disruption?

“Ask yourself these tough questions,” Greg replied.

  • If we keep doing what everyone else is doing? What won’t we be able to achieve?
  • When will you need to speak truth to power to say what must be said?
  • Are you comfortable being disliked to be effective?

“Then, find the people within your organization who will give honest answers. Most of us enjoy being liked. No one wants to feel like an outcast. Being caught in the web of obstructionism inside of an industry can be very intimidating.

“Unfortunately, progress is not possible without that courage. No worthwhile innovation or change ever happened unless someone was willing to step forward and say something hard for others to hear.

“However, this is an important distinction,” Greg said. “There’s a huge difference between punk as an act of love versus punk as an act of war. Acting out of love is when you say, ‘I think we can improve. We can be more impactful and fulfill our mission more effectively. But it means we have to change. We must start doing some things and stop doing others.’ Punk as an act of war is when the goal is to just burn the whole thing down. Approaching confrontation with positive intent makes it less intimidating and more effective.”

This idea of positive disruption is so important. In 2020 associations became more accustomed to adapting to challenging situations. As time goes by, we are becoming complacent again and less open to reinvention, especially in the area of membership initiatives. I asked Greg what strategies he recommends for a market where there is so much competition for people’s time and attention.

Build a Movement

“Drawing a sharp distinction between your organization and the competition is key,” Greg replied. “For example, in our group, there are certain hellish situations that require a punk to fix. The way we differentiate ourselves is by vividly describing those events. For example, we outline what it’s like when you’re in an executive board meeting and the house is burning down but everyone wants to pretend it’s business as usual. Or when your organization’s mission is not getting accomplished, and if you can’t change, everything’s going to collapse. You need to be able to clearly articulate:

Draw a distinction between yourself and the competition.
  • What hell looks like for your audience.
  • What conventional solutions might be available and why they won’t work.
  • And, why what you offer is different and better.

“When that story is the engine of everything you say about yourself, you’re not just promoting an association, you’re building a movement. That narrative makes people feel like they’re part of something that’s bigger than they are. Everyone who has been dying for someone to offer an alternative will be like, ‘Where have you been all my life? I’ve been waiting for someone to have the audacity to say that out loud.’ It’s a very hard thing to do. It takes courage. Do it anyway!”

I would agree that courage is essential to success. The stories in Greg’s book revolve around courage. And I wondered what brave initiatives Greg sees association professionals diving into even though they might get us fired.

“Innovating might get you fired,” Greg replied. “When you build something new or turn around a work horse that’s old and failing, you’re not just creating a beneficial outcome. You’re also telling everyone who put the organization into a precarious situation, that they’re no longer worthy of their power. Innovators don’t always realize how tough the backlash from obstructionists, concerned about self-preservation and self-promotion, can be.”

Recognize the Defense

“As an innovator at Google, Uber, and Bloomberg, every time something I built started to work, I almost got fired. People were concerned about losing their fiefdoms. But leaders who bring great innovations to fruition inside of big, mature, established organizations can recognize the obstructionist defense and call the right play to get past them. naming the obstructionists and knowing that there’s a strategy you can call when you encounter each one of them will make you bulletproof as an innovator.

“What’s guaranteed, is that every time you start doing something new, even if it’s mission-critical, one of those obstructionists is going to try to get you fired. And if they haven’t, then you haven’t started innovating. For those of us who have built stuff that made a difference, or transformed things that needed some new life and a swift kick in the pants—everyone who’s been through that knows that it was one of the most politically difficult, challenging, fraught, confrontational things you’ll ever go through in business. Do it anyway. It’s awesome. It’s wonderful. After a while you start to feel different, you know that opposition is validation. It’s supposed to make people uncomfortable. That’s how you know it’s working.”

Given the challenges involved in innovation, I asked Greg what leaders can do to make it easier for teams to bring new ideas forward.

“Making it safe for people to be anti-obstructionist leaders is the hardest thing you can do in any organization. You have to ask yourself—

  • How are we getting in our own way?
  • What is culturally incompatible with the boldness of our mission?
  • In what ways is the boldness of our mission matched with something that is just really conservative and dogmatic and doesn’t need to be that way?

“If you’re in a regular cadence of asking good questions about your own obstructionist tendencies, you’ll be alright, it’s going to be hard. You’ll have some difficult conversations, but the alternative is stagnation. You know, we can be stagnant and ordinary, or you can have a conversation about what and who needs to change.”

Be a Fearless Innovator

I’ll second that. I want you to be a fearless innovator. But I don’t want you to get fired. Not all of us have Greg’s persistence or his creativity. If you can muster a bit of that chutzpah, it might be contagious. You could discover that you were actually a punk all along. And, maybe, just maybe, you could convince others to join you.