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overcoming disruption

What having cancer taught me about disruptive forces

Disruptive forces have a sneaky habit of creeping up on you

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No one wants to hear they have cancer. As disruptive forces go it has the power to change everything. But equally and as with any disruptive force, be it in the world of work or your personal life, there are steps that can be taken to influence and shape a positive outcome.  


Here in his own words is TomorrowToday co-founder and Chief eXploration Officer (CXO) Dean van Leeuwen’s story and the five steps you can take when confronted with disruption in your life.

Dr William Marsden founder

of the Royal Marsden Hospital

Dr William Marsden loved his wife Elizabeth Ann dearly and he was deeply affected by her death from cancer. He resolved to classify tumours, research the causes, and find new treatments. In 1851, as part of his quest, he founded The Royal Marsden, the world’s first hospital dedicated to the treatment of cancer. 


It was last November, at the Royal Marsden, where I first met Dr Mike Potter. Stylish black rimmed spectacles, a dark neatly trimmed ginger tinted beard, youthful face, playful grin and short spikey hair;  belied his age and experience as Head of Haematology at the world’s leading cancer hospital. 


He shook my hand saying: “You’ve been on some journey.” He wasn’t wrong, but I didn’t quite know how to respond, so I just smiled. 

Six months earlier, I’d been told by a different consultant that I had cancer, then a month later told I didn’t. Christmas, had come early, we celebrated. Then a few months later came the crushing news that the first biopsy had missed the cancer, it was there all along. The pièce de résistance over months of emotional highs and lows was my body rejecting in dramatic fashion the first round of chemotherapy. 


At the time, I wasn’t sure if being referred to the Head of Haematology at the Royal Marsden was a good omen. “We’ll take good care of you,” Dr Potter said reassuringly. “I’ve looked over your case and we are going to cure you! And, cure is not a word we use in this line of work”. I settled down to hear more.

Lesson 1: Build buffers

“Cancer is a disease of ageing,” said Dr Potter, “studies suggest that 1 out of every 2 people will contract the disease” he continued. “That’s staggering”, I was not aware the odds were so high. Reflecting, I felt relieved to have had the wherewithal to take out critical illness cover a few years earlier. 


The cover provided my family with a much-needed buffer. Without this safeguard, we would have been battling a health as well as a financial disruption. 

The lesson is clear.


Build buffers, initial defence systems be they insurances, a financial war chests or alliances with key partners. Because, when disruption hits you do not want to be fighting multiple fronts. Buffers are critical components in your arsenal and strategy.


They act by reducing the initial impact and importantly provide breathing space allowing you to assess the situation and plan your next steps. Prior preparation against possible disruption offers a strategic and tactical advantage. So, plan ahead and put protective buffers in place. 

Lesson 2: Be vigilant for ‘not normal’ signs

At the age of 16 I got glandular fever, it was a beast of an illness. So, 31 years later when a small lump appeared in my upper neck it was a worrying reminder. But I didn’t feel sick whereas with glandular fever a truck had driven over me. The temptation to ignore this weak signal and carry on, business as normal, was certainly there. 


How often do you see signs that things are changing? A new competitor, a new technology or something just feels different. 


The temptation is there to ignore it or take a wait and see approach. But here’s the thing. We live in an exponential, rapidly changing world, ignoring early warning signs or even worse, noticing them but taking a wait and see approach means missing doing something about the disruption until it is too late. 


So, act quickly and decisively even if what you do is wrong, because not acting means you are a duck in the water. 


As soon as your disruptive radar pings be curious, speak to the experts.

It’s not that large corporations do not notice the disruptive signs. Rather they fail to explore them sufficiently.

In my case the first expert I saw was my GP. “Do you feel ill?” she asked. “No” I replied. “Have you had a fever recently?” “No” came my confident response, wanting to ignore the ‘new normal’. Then came the surprise. “Let’s schedule a consultant meeting and place you on the cancer two-week waiting list.” The GP’s words resounded with an echoing thud.


At the turn of the century, Kodak was one of the most powerful corporations, but it failed to be heed early warning disruptive signals. The story goes, in 1975 Steve Sasson, a Kodak engineer invented the digital camera. It was as big as a toaster, took 20 seconds to take a fuzzy, low quality image. But the signs were there for the vigilant. 


This nascent technology clearly had disruptive potential, but Kodak’s executives chose a wait and see strategy and by the time they reacted it was too late. Spotting ‘not normal’ signs and doing something about them are two very different things. 


Companies often see the disruptive forces affecting their industry, but rarely do they divert sufficient resources or attention to confronting them. 

Take for example artificial intelligence which has been in development since the late 1950’s. For the curiously vigilant this is not a new disruption. 


Or how about Nespresso coffee. It took Nestlé 21 years to develop their disruption successfully. Over this period, Nespresso failed spectacularly not once but twice bore finally succeeding massively. 


The research is clear, disruption takes a lot longer than most think. 


Did you know it took Steve Jobs 27-years of planning and failing before Apple launched the magically disruptive iPad?  


It’s not that large corporations do not notice the disruptive signs, mostly they do. Rather they fail to spend enough time exploring and truly understand what these early warning signs mean. The ensuing result is then an inability to adapt to new business models and disruptive opportunities as they open up, and in Kodak’s case file for bankruptcy. 

Lesson 3: Explore, be curious and expect the unexpected

Two weeks after seeking advice from my GP, I’m sitting in a cramped little room in the Royal Surrey Hospital in Guildford listening to the consultant tell me “there are two hundred things it could be...” 


The reality is that during the early phases of disruption, things will be unclear. This shouldn’t be a reason to ignore the signs as I did and carried on with your day job. There was a trip to New York to focus on where I was speaking as the opening keynote at a prestigious Harvard Club event. I felt well, the lump was nothing, I told myself. I was having a Kodak moment. 

Then the disruptive force notched things up a level. It’s the weekend and the morning after returning from a successful talk in New York, I wake up to discover that, within just six hours, the lump in my neck has grown from the size of an 

olive to the size of a goose egg. I look like I’ve been in a cage fight with Tyson Fury. We rush to the A&E. The swelling is alarming but it’s not blocking the airways and with no fever I’m sent home. A biopsy is scheduled for Monday. It can’t come quickly enough. 


The swollen mass is prodded, poked and scraped with a long needle which I try not to look but it’s too huge miss. The doctor also kindly offers to squeeze me in for an unscheduled MRI scan. “It’s that or come back in two-weeks’ time”. I grab the opportunity. It’s now been 6-weeks since my GP visit and we are no nearer to understanding what is going on.

“Will the radioactive juice make me glow in the dark?” Sadly, that is not one of the side-effects. 

I’m getting worried. The biopsy results will only be available in “another two weeks”. It’s feeling like Groundhog Day.  Everything is two-weeks away and I’m just treading water. I head back to see my GP the swelling is growing and my head is racing maybe it is not cancer. Demise by abscess, I joke would not be a cool epitaph for my short life. 


Then the devastating Manchester Arena Bombing brings a stark sense of realism to my world. As disruptions go, and as bad as it is, there are worse things than cancer. I breathe deep and stay still.  


My GP pulls some strings and after two days I’m called to her surgery. She has bad news the results suggest lymphoma cancer. I’m scheduled for an urgent surgical biopsy and PET scan. Two more weeks come and go, during which I’m prodded and poked more times than I care to count. The PET scan involves  being injected with a florescent yellow radioactive cocktail. “You need to stay away from pregnant women and children for the next 24 hours” I’m told by the nurse technician. In an attempt to make light of the situation I ask:  “Will the radioactive juice make me glow in the dark, because if it does my little boy will be seriously impressed by my new superpowers?” Sadly, that is not one of the side-effects. 


A week after the surgical biopsy, my consultant gives me a contemplative look. I brace myself, then comes the shock: “You are in the all clear” he says. This is impossibly good news. “The biopsy test results show no signs of cancer in the neck region” he says, “so, I suspected throat cancer, but that is clear too. It’s a mystery.”


Perhaps being in the all clear is what Kodak’s executives too wanted to believe when they described Sasson’s disruptive digital camera as “cute technology”. My celebration like Kodak’s is short lived. Three months later signs of disruption hit again. A third biopsy follows and the cancer that had been in hiding, is found.  


During the early stages of disruption, things will present themselves as overinflated hype or fake news. Here’s the thing, disruptions by nature have a nasty habit of disguising themselves and creeping up on you. So, question everything and always be prepared for the unexpected.

Lesson 4: Do something meaningful

Since writing the book: Quest – The art of leadership and competitive advantage in the 21st Century;  I’d been seeking a personal quest and now had one in spades.


My research identified that remarkable leaders and organisations on quests to make a difference in the world they control and influence, do three things:


1) They challenge the impossible 

2) They deliver meaningful benefits, and 

3) They have an inspirational destination. 


Think of JFK’s quest to go to the moon, this decade. His quest was certainly considered impossible at the time. Equally it was massively inspirational and would deliver huge benefits to the world and specifically America. I decided to use the quest framework as a way to approach my cancer moonshot. 


Curing the cancer is not a quest I have much control over. That is in the hands of Dr Potter and his wonderful team of nurses at the Royal Marsden. 


But what I did have control over was my own wellbeing and attitude.

So, needing something worthy of a quest I decided to enter the infamous Dragon L’Etape, a gruelling 3-day multi-stage cycle ride through the Welsh Black Mountains. The cycle ride, organised by the same people who do the Tour de France, would take place in June, just three months after completing chemo and radiotherapy treatment. The quest feels daunting, even impossible. Doing 350km would be challenging enough, let alone after the gruelling cancer treatment. 


But I’m inspired and buoyed by the words of Google co-founder Sergey Brin: 


“Your moonshot shouldn’t relate to how likely you are to achieve it. Even if you fail, all the side effects can be more rewarding and significant in their own right.” 


Training begins immediately and I cycle to the hospital for the first day of treatment.

Lesson 5: Focus on the things you control

My first round of chemo is a bust, my body reacts badly to the cocktail of drugs. I break out in hives all over my back and chest, it’s an itchy sensation that has me climbing up the wall but foolishly I ignore these early warning signs. 


Then my heart begins to pound. The nurse lifts my shirt and sees my red blotchy skin. Panic races across her face, she clearly understands the signs of disruption better than I do. Suddenly every nurse and doctor in the ward is rushing around me. This does little to settle my racing heart. The infusion rate is slowed and a 3-hour chemo session turns into an 11-hour marathon of itchiness and heart palpitations.

The session is eventually abandon with only 30% of the drugs being administered. My consultant calls me the next day, she’s worried and I’ve been referred to the Royal Marsden. 


The second attempt under Dr Potter’s team involves much slower infusion rates allowing the nurses to control the chemo side effects. It’s taken 8-months since the first signs of disruption were identified but finally it feels like we are making headway.


The day after chemo round-one take-two, I’m out riding my mountain bike in the woodlands around my house. It’s December and freezing cold. The frost bites at my cheeks making me feel alive and I’m inspired by the beauty of the English countryside.

I take my German Shepherd, Shanga, with me. She’s excited and pulls like crazy against the bungee cord attached to a pole extending out from the side of my seat post. This dog walking bike contraption bought off Amazon is an amazing investment. I’m pulled along as if on a sleigh. This is going to be easy I think as she does all the work and I freewheel uphill. But Shanga is a quick learner and the next climb she trots gently alongside ignoring my shouts of “mosh, mosh!”


The bike riding gets more and more brutal, the chemo saps my energy and the average bike speed drops to those closer to that of a runner. I feel dreadful – like a bad hangover without the good night out. No energy, no appetite, extremely thirsty and everything aches, I’m tempted to lie in bed but I’m on a meaningful quest. 


Hills are ridden at an agonisingly slow pace, I tell myself if I can do chemo and beat cancer I can ride this hill. I persist. Shanga looks up at me, she’s happy to be out of the house. Her enthusiasm motivates me. I feel blessed. On one ride, it starts snowing and so I stop to take photos. 


Life is good. 

“Your moonshot shouldn’t relate to how likely you are to achieve it. Even if you fail, all the side effects can be more rewarding and significant in their own right.”

~ Sergey Brin, Google

Final Thoughts

It’s not easy living with constant change, but disruption is the new normal in the 21st century. The forces of disruption come in many guises. They may be personal, like my cancer, or they can be technological, political and social having broader implications impacting organisations and society.

Disruption should be viewed as a gift. I didn’t want the gift of cancer but it’s been a great learning experience. It has changed me and those around me, there will never be a going back to normal, we now live in a new normal, one we embrace. 

We need a framework to help not only cope with but to thrive in an age of disruption. So, I hope these 5-steps to overcoming disruption give you fortitude to bravely face your next disruption: 


  • Step 1: Build buffers;

  • Step 2: Be vigilant and aware of weak signals; 

  • Step 3: Explore, be curious and expect the unexpected; 

  • Step 4: Focusing on what you control; 

  • Step 5: Do something meaningful.

If you have any questions or would like me to speak to your team about disruptive forces and innovating during times of change please contact me. 

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