Episode 11: Navigating Disruption on the Frontline with Shawn Kanungo

Think about the ways you have adapted the way you live and work during the pandemic. Consider how much more quickly organizations have adopted digital tools and ecommerce options than they have in the past. The pandemic has disrupted our lives, but it has also set the stage for an unprecedented level of innovation…but only for companies who recognize this potential.


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Episode overview:

JD sits down with Shawn Kanungo to explore the impact of disruption and how this can be reframed as the fuel for positive business change. We talked about the ways the pandemic has impacted both organizations and individuals. We highlight the importance of learning from disruption to find new ways to move forward. And we discover the greatest source of potential innovation in any business: the frontline. 

Hear more from Shawn at AxoniCom LIVE – the only conference focused on the needs of the frontline. This one-of-a-kind digital experience takes place on September 28th and 29th and features insights from professionals who have led frontline-forward organizations like Disney, Lowe’s, Foot Locker and Kroger. These two days are guaranteed to help you prepare your frontline for whatever comes next. Grab from tickets for your entire team at

The 80 Percent is brought to you by Axonify. To learn how you can provide communication and training to your frontline workforce that actually works, visit If you have a frontline story you’d like us to explore on a future episode, let us know at

Audio from The Social Network is used in adherence with fair use under Section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976 for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.

About the Guest(s)

Shawn Kanungo

Shawn Kanungo is a disruption strategist who works at the intersection of creativity, business, and technology. He has been recognized nationally and globally for his work in the innovation space after 12 years of working at Deloitte. Kanungo’s mandate at the firm was to help corporate executives to better understand and plan for the opportunities and threats associated with disruptive innovation.

About the Host(s)

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect
JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

JD Dillon became an expert on frontline training and enablement over two decades working in operations and talent development with dynamic organizations, including Disney, Kaplan and AMC. A respected author and speaker in the workplace learning community, JD also continues to apply his passion for helping frontline employees around the world do their best work every day in his role as Axonify's Chief Learning Architect.

Episode Transcript

You need to make sure your frontline employees are prepared for whatever comes next. So mark your calendar for September 28th and 29th for AxoniCom LIVE. The only conference focused on the needs of the frontline. This one of a kind digital experience will feature renowned keynote speakers, informative education sessions, interactive activities, and industry meetups. To help you transform your business through your front line. Grab free tickets for your whole team at

JD Dillon:
Episode 11, navigating disruption on the front line recorded on Friday, August 12, 2020. Do you remember when disruption was a fun topic of conversation? Of course, disruption was never fun for the organization being disrupted, but disruption has long been the stuff of legend.

Voice 1:
But if you go back just about 130 years ago, people weren’t thinking about hoverboards or jet packs, they just wanted faster horses. And that dream of a more powerful horse eventually turned into horsepower.

JD Dillon:
It’s been a popular subject of study in the business world.

Voice 2:
Netflix began as a mail order, DVD service instead of going to a local store like blockbuster, Netflix delivered entertainment, right to your door. 10 years later, after delivering its billionth DVD, Netflix expanded into internet video on demand. What they offered was a  revolutionary new way of watching TV.

JD Dillon:
It’s even been a form of entertainment.

Mark Zuckerberg Movie Quote:
You know, you really don’t need a forensics team to get to the bottom of this. If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.

JD Dillon:
But over the past six months, disruption has shifted from a business strategy to an everyday reality.

Voice 3:
There’s no question that the COVID-19 outbreak continues to disrupt manufacturing and global supply chains with real consequences for businesses, for consumers and the global economy.

JD Dillon:
But what can we learn from experiencing the most significant workplace and social disruption in a generation? And how can we use this knowledge to find a new path forward, to explore the impact disruption has on frontline for its organizations I spoke with Shawn Kanungo.

Shawn Kanungo:
And what we’ve realized is that the most important people when it comes to your strategy is actually the frontline.

JD Dillon:
Shawn is a globally recognized disruption strategist as a partner of queen and ruck capital. Shawn helps organizations adopt exponential technologies and adapt to the digital age. Shawn will also be my cohost at AxoniCom LIVE the only digital event focused on the needs of the frontline workforce. Coming up on September 28th and 29th. Here’s my conversation with Shawn Kanungo.

For a lot of people, disruption in January meant one thing, and now it means something else. So how would you compare the disruption we’ve seen during the pandemic to other forms of disruption you’ve seen come to the workplace?

Shawn Kanungo:
Previously disruption was really around, you know, new technologies, new companies coming out of nowhere, really changing the status quo for organizations and for employees. Since the pandemic has really hit, I think it’s forced everyone to realize what disruption actually feels like, which is a sudden change, a meteor, an asteroid that changes the status quo. And now people are trying to navigate, how do I work from home or how do I work on the front line and make sure that I’m safe, that I’m communicating regularly with everyone in my organization. I think that has been the biggest disruption in terms of talent and people and training and management. It’s thrown the biggest curve ball that anybody has ever seen.

JD Dillon:
We almost always talk about disruption as a strategy, whether it’;s something that’s happening to you or something that you can do in order to disrupt your industry or disrupt the competition. And now this disruption is something that’s happening to each of us individually. So I’m curious to get your perspective on the personal side of disruption, how is this situation really impacting the people side of business?

Shawn Kanungo:
I think what this pandemic has really done, it’s exposed every organization to think about strategy, not from an ivory tower, but look at it from an entire organizational perspective. And what we’ve realized is that the most important people when it comes to your strategy is actually the front line. From a personal perspective, If you are on the front line, you should be playing a much bigger piece around the
broader strategy. You know, JD I’ve spent my entire career in strategy and building out strategic plans for executives, but the game has changed. There is a new playbook. The new five year plan is actually a six month plan and it’s a lot more tactical and experimental and operational. And that requires the frontline to execute against that plan. Things are becoming a lot quicker and shorter, and I think that’s
why we need the frontline to be a lot more engaged in the strategy because at the end of the day, they’re the ones executing it. I really believe that what this pandemic has done, it’s accelerated the importance of the frontline when it comes to strategy and thinking about innovation and disruption ingeneral.

JD Dillon:
The pandemic has disrupted everyone, every business, every workplace, but that disruption is being felt differently and impacting our organizations differently. Who’s really feeling this impact the most. Are there certain industries or certain regions being disrupted potentially more or in different ways than others?

Shawn Kanungo:
What’s interesting is that, you know, especially from a digital perspective, this is certainly just accelerated digital transformation and people’s adoption of digital across every single industry. You had digital laggards, people that were slow to move when it comes to the digital now become digital transformation experts. You’ve seen restaurant folks figure out how do we do delivery. You’ve seen even like late night hosts, turn into YouTubers, you’ve seen gym fitness trainers turn into like Jillian Michaels and Richard Simmons. Every industry has been impacted. I think the industries that have been the most impacted obviously are those that were very much involved in, in people, you know, moving around people in accommodations, travel, tourism, hospitality, restaurants, certainly the most impacted by this disruption. And I’ve just been on the ground floor, talking to executives and leaders across all these different industries. And it’s been devastating. It’s been devastating to say the least this is going to be the greatest economic downturn for some of those industries.

Shawn Kanungo:
Even the industries that you think are doing really well during this time, which is digital technology natives. They’ve also been having difficulty navigating. How do we manage our workforce during this time? How do we engage our frontline? So I think it’;s just really impacted every single industry. And there are some industries I don’t think they’re done forever, but they will need to fundamentally reimagine what they’re doing. At least in the short term. And I’m talking about travel. We may have hit peak business travel. We’re looking at things like commercial real estate. Now that more people are working from home, like, what does that mean to real estate? I think we need to reimagine what an office looks like. I don’t know if you’;re going to get on a cruise anytime soon. We’ll see what happens with that. Although there’s some industries that have been severely impacted and I'm really hoping that they recover. I actually think that there might be some new opportunities, new industries that are
actually created out of this.

JD Dillon:
I’ve heard you say that the greatest era of innovation is coming. So if I’m in a business where right now, I’m just trying to do what I can to keep the doors open. How do I start focusing on the potential for innovation that might be derived from this level of disruption?

Shawn Kanungo:
This idea that the greatest era of innovation is coming. I mean, it is a bit of a broad statement, but I do really believe in it. I can’t predict the future. I’m not a futurist, but this is what I do know is that most organizations and individuals play in this little bubble, right? We get really romantic about our existing processes and governance and what we’ve established and what we’ve learned throughout history. How do we do 30 minute meetings and operating cubicles? And how do we get educated in certain ways we’ve been operating in this certain playbook. And I think what this pandemic has really done, it has disrupted the entire playbook. Now people are open to new ways of doing things. I have actually been inspired during this pandemic. I’ve been inspired by people trying new of doing things and really embracing innovation. The reason why I think it’s the greatest time for innovation is not only because this bubble has been burst, but also I have seen it, people on the ground floor trying new ways of doing things, new businesses like pivoting and, and literally changing overnight.

Shawn Kanungo:
Even if you talk about folks on the front line, you know, thinking about safety and what are we doing on the front lines? You know, construction workers, especially here in Canada, we’re thinking once they had to go back to the sites, they’re like, okay, it’s how do we do this safely? In many cases that we’re starting to wear mass early, getting the hand sanitizer, trying to social distance, as much as possible. People are passionate about safety, just seeing new ways for people to do things that’s been inspiring to me. I think the bubble has burst and we’re in the midst of the greatest time for innovation that we’ve ever seen.

JD Dillon:
What do you think organizations can do to shift that mindset, to go from not having a plan to deal with this kind of disruption, to a mindset where they’re proactively thinking ahead, even if they’re still a bit operating in survival mode, how can they start thinking about where innovation can take them into the future as they look to reimagine, reinvent their business, as the pandemic continues.

Shawn Kanungo:
Nobody planned for this pandemic, but nobody plans for any disruption. That’s the thing with disruption is that sometimes it’s at our doorsteps, it just stands there and it comes into our house without us even expecting it. That’s what disruption is really about. It really comes out of nowhere. We’ve always been in a state of disruption. I think this pandemic was just one of the biggest disruptions that we’ve ever faced and what I’ve been talking to executives and leaders over the last number of months. A lot of them have been saying, I just want to get back to where I was, but I really believe that this might be an opportunity to figure out where do we want to go? Where do we want to go? What do we want to stand for? I think one of the strategies of making this happen is really around the idea of experimentation.

Shawn Kanungo:
And starting with small sprints, small teams, small problems, and seeing how we can move the needle. I believe so much in this idea of experimentation. You’ve seen it already during this pandemic. I really believe that the way that we can move ourselves as individuals and as organizations forward is through this idea of experimentation. It’s not disrupting the core of what you are doing. It’s simply trying new ways of doing things in a very small way and seeing if things work. To me, this is how we’re going to start to move things. That would be my advice to not only organizations, but to executives and to our friends on the front line.

JD Dillon:
What are your thoughts on the idea of iteration not waiting until you have the entire plan, the entire strategy, all of the content built before you get out there and start making small, but meaningful changes. Where does iteration fit into this idea of innovation through disruption and experimentation?

Shawn Kanungo:
Iteration is such an important part around experimentation. Experimentation is really the idea of starting something small with a very small problem while iterating is constantly thinking about how do we improve it? How do we make it better? I think they work hand in hand with each other. The magic about iteration is that you’re always constantly learning and learning from your failed experiments. So I love the idea that you brought up around iteration. I think it’s so important for a training and development because as you know, better than anybody is that you learn the best when you actually start failing at something, you start improving on a daily basis. It’s not about somebody goes into a dusty classroom in Whistler, BC every year or every two years and sits in classroom and learn for that period of time. It’s like meditating. It’s like a muscle that you flex every single day when it comes to learning. And iteration is such an important part to that.

JD Dillon:
You’ve mentioned a couple of times just how critical the frontline is in executing a strategy to help an organization overcome or work their way through disruption. And I think at the beginning of the pandemic, the essential nature of the frontline was very clear, right? The word hero was used a lot, but now that hero status, that essential understanding of the frontline, seems to be slipping. So how do we make sure it stays clear that the frontline will always be essential moving forward, especially to the people who are making the big decisions and deciding on what the strategies will be moving forward in a business?

Shawn Kanungo:
I think what has been clear for executives is that the front line is actually super adept at changing and leading the charge. And they have been super heroes during this entire pandemic. This might sound controversial and provocative, but I really believe that the front line should be intricately or even leading the innovation playbook for an organization. Now, why do I believe that? I believe that the way that we do strategy has changed, I believe that it has to be a lot more experimental. You have to include your frontline in the process. And I believe that every single frontline employee should have an innovation initiative attached to them. Let me just take my mother-in-law, you take Nirmala who works at Costco. Part of your job should also be around innovation, which is how do I do things differently? How do I
come up with small, slight experiments that might fundamentally increase efficiency or create a new way for us to do things?

That idea has to be able to come through the ranks and come to the top. See JD, I think one of the problems that has happened traditionally with organizations, especially in large organizations, is that the ideas the front line can’t get to the top. Somebody has an idea. It has to go to a manager, they have to pitch their idea to somebody, and then they have to pitch that idea to somebody else. Then that person has a pitch that idea to somebody else like the risk just mounts and the initial root of the idea is actually lost. If we can equip our frontline staff and empower them with the idea that they are part of the innovation initiative, and we actually create a clear line for their innovative ideas to come to the top.

Not only are they going to be empowered more, but you’re going to see the result in greater organizational performance, greater results, greater revenue, happier people. And I know this sounds controversial, but I think this is flipping the entire concept of where innovation strategy should lie within an organization.

JD Dillon:
Because who actually knows how to do the job and how work gets done better than the people on the frontline doing it every day. And something we said in our last episode that might be seen as also a bit controversial is the idea that customers, in fact, aren’t number one, that the employee is number one.

And then by extension, if you treat and enable employees correctly, they’ll take care of your customer who are a close number two. So what’s your perspective on prioritizing the employee over the customer?

Shawn Kanungo:
When it comes to customers as well, they often don’t know what they want or what they need. I’m such a big believer in this idea of ethnographic research, which is unlocking insights around customers. You know, just watching what they do. I think you can do the same thing with employees. I really believe that if employees are empowered to make decisions, if they’re given an agenda around innovation, that they can start to understand customers in fundamentally different ways, they can understand their unmet needs, which goes back to this idea of ethnographic research and sort of observing them because the frontline folks are on the ground floor, observing people all day long and actually seeing what people do. I’;m in agreement with it. I think we need to flip this idea of focusing on the customer and flow, focusing on the employee. So I don’t know how controversial that is, but I agree.

JD Dillon:
My last big question is again, about changing perspective. We’ve been talking about disruption through the lens of an organization or from a workplace perspective, but what about what we should be learning as individuals? What have we learned over the past several months and what will we learn moving forward? That’ll help us live better lives or become better performers in our jobs. What should we as individuals be taking away from this disruption experience?

Shawn Kanungo:
This might come off a little harsh, but I really believe that everyone should be in the process or thinking about disrupting themselves. How can we create new opportunities for ourselves? How do we learn new ways of doing things? The gateway drug to disrupting yourself is really by learning new ways of doing things. It’s experimenting, whether you are an executive, whether you’re in the front lines, you should try to think about how do I take myself out of business, and this might sound odd, but when I used to work for somebody else, I used to go every single day into work and ask the question, how do I get fired today? How do I get fired today? The reason why that’s a powerful question that I always ask myself was it actually forced me to go off and take a calculated risk, a risk that won’t put my customers at great risk or my, or my other peers or colleagues, but it’s how do I change my own trajectory and the trajectory of this organization by taking a risk? What you’ll do by coming into work with that very controversial question is that 99.99999% of the time you won’t get fired. But what you will do is you will push yourself outside of your comfort zone and you will push your organization outside of your comfort zone. So the question is, how do I get myself fired today?

JD Dillon:
Of course we will be co-hosting AxoniCom LIVE in just a couple of weeks. So I’m curious, what is your rapid 30 second pitch on why someone who leads an organization with a frontline or someone who manages a frontline team? Why should they be excited to attend AxoniCom LIVE?

Shawn Kanungo:
Well first of all, the Axonify team puts on the best events that you’ve ever seen. I had the pleasure of being there a couple years ago, and they literally put on one of the greatest events that I’ve ever seen. And I know virtually they’re gonna do the same thing. It’s going to be immersive. It’s going to be engaging. It’s going to be exciting. And it’s going to be super tactical and actionable. They’re amazing keynotes, a really great thought leaders. And we are literally going to give you new playbooks, new ideas. And I think the combination of creating unbelievable content with really great tactics is the reason why everybody should be joining this event. I, I think this is the greatest event and if it’;s not, you can let me know, send me a note and I will reimburse you personally for your ticket. This is gonna be the greatest virtual event that you’ve ever attended.

JD Dillon ( 20:23 ):
Thanks to Shawn Kanungo for sharing his insights into how you can leverage the experience of your frontline to help you navigate your organization through workplace disruption. Shawn will be leading conversations with a variety of frontline forward thought leaders and practitioners at AxoniCom LIVE. So learn more and grab your free tickets at If you enjoyed this conversation and want to
hear more frontline forward stories, subscribe to The 80 Percent on your favorite podcast app. You can also find all of our episodes online at I hope you’ll join us again in two weeks for another story about how companies are helping their frontline employees make a difference in their organizations and communities. Until then be kind of a frontline.

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