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Are You in a Bubble?

A long time ago, I worked in the newspaper industry. The people at the top of that industry were very, very powerful. The words they printed had the power to change minds, policies, and even entire governments. The retail ads that ran beside those words had the power to make cash registers ring and the classified ads had the power find readers a new job, a place to live, a car to drive and even a person to love.

All that power translated into influence, prestige, and a whole lot of money.

And then the internet came along.

At first, newspaper executives viewed it as a curiosity. Then, as a fad that would pass. I remember one executive saying in a speech, “You can’t take your computer with you on the bus, or to the doctor’s waiting room, or to the bathroom”. Cue funny image of man reading newspaper on the john.

Sure, they launched their own websites, but very few newspaper executives understood the core-shaking effect the internet would have on their businesses over the next decade.

You see, they were in a bubble. A bubble insulated by their power and influence and money (and egos). None of them spent any time on the internet, and if they, the people with the power weren’t there, it certainly didn’t matter.

From in their bubbles, they couldn’t understand the appeal of Craig’s List nor predict that it, and other sites would decimate their very profitable classified ad sections. Or that wi-fi would take the computer out of the den and into any room in the house (including the bathroom). Or that internet-enabled cell phones were about to become ubiquitous. Even after the launches of Google and Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, they still didn’t understand there was no future in selling content bundles. Content had become atomized into single units of text, or sound or video to be shared across multiple platforms, none of which were the newspaper.

They were clueless. They no longer understood their own industry. The equivalent would be the CEO of GM not knowing how to drive.

By the time the newspaper industry burst out of its own bubble and realized what was happening, it was too late. And today, outside of a few outliers, many newspapers in North America are struggling to keep their doors open as they are ravaged by profit hungry hedge fund vultures who, from their own bubbles, demand cuts, cuts, cuts.

There are all kinds of bubbles. There are industry bubbles and cultural bubbles and political bubbles and socio-economic bubbles.

Look at your organization. If everyone around you is the same color, speaks the same mother tongue, has the same sexuality and/or cisgender identity, the same level of education, the same physical abilities, the same body size, or the same level of wealth, you just might be in a bubble.

And from your bubble, your team winds up with the same ideas, the same strategies, the same people, the same technology and the same tools as you’ve always had. You become unimaginative, closed minded, and a slave to the past. Those who think differently or approach things in unorthodox ways become disenchanted and demotivated. Opportunities for change and innovation are lost.

In their excellent book, Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer write that, “The quality of results produced by any system depends on the quality of awareness from which people in the system operate. The formula for a successful change process is not ‘form follows function’, but ‘form follows consciousness’.”

How can you burst your own bubble? Be an explorer.

Allow curiosity to chart your course. Question your assumptions. Challenge your notions of what is true and what is real. Ground yourself in your own core values and purpose and from there, open to new ideas, people and situations. Talk to your employees. Talk to people in other departments. Talk to your customers (at least one per week). Read, read, read. Listen to podcasts.

And above all, prioritize the truth of what is actually happening around you over your own personal comfort.

Only from there will you begin to sense what is emerging around you. And only then can you envision a future, create strategies that work and enact change that matters.

This is the real work of a leader.

And it’s very, very powerful.

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