As leaders, we may believe we interact with people of different backgrounds and get outside expertise and perspectives, but do we? We think we experience differing viewpoints when we consult our trusted teams or hold organizational summits. In reality, we’re often locked into an institution bubble in which an organization or industry becomes its own echo chamber. We don’t see new insights; we see reflections of our own point of view, filtered back to us by people who tell us what they think we want to hear.

The higher you are on the ladder, the more people filter out the information that they think you don’t or won’t like. It’s akin to what the Facebook algorithms are doing to us on a systemic level — filtering out the very oxygen we need in order to innovate. What is that oxygen? It’s disconfirming data from different points of view. No innovation or true insights can happen without it.

This self-limiting barrier of an institution shields leaders from outside ideas and expertise that could reshape the future of the organization. It prevents opportunities to deepen the conversation and doesn’t allow any space for new ways to tackle problems.

Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook present a telling example of a leader and company stuck inside a bubble. Zuckerberg’s response to Facebook’s data privacy scandal around Cambridge Analytica was shockingly slow. He doesn’t really get it. He doesn’t feel what we — the users — are feeling, so his responses sound memorized and inauthentic. Too little, too late — and there goes the dominance of a social media giant. What we are watching now is the beginning of the slow (or not so slow) demise of Facebook. It will take some time, but it’s coming. And the root cause is being stuck in a bubble.

Leaders can’t observe clearly if they can’t see anything outside of their own organization or industry. In order to drive real change, leaders must escape that bubble, step into the future, and position themselves and their enterprises to realize that future’s full potential. Here’s how.

1. Start by changing your search engine.

Google developers don’t use Google search. They use DuckDuckGo, a search engine known for protecting the privacy of users by not creating profiles or filtering searches — and it’s not set up to make a fortune with your data. Do the same. While you’re at it, check out Gobo to retake control of your social news feed.

2. Look for outside points of view.

Cultivate personal relationships with people who operate in areas, cultures, and milieus that are very different to your own.

3. Travel to the place of most potential.

Two or three times a year, take a total immersion-sensing journey that puts you into the place of most potential. Ask yourself: Given your current challenges, what do you consider the top three places of greatest potential? These are places that could teach you how to address the current situation. Make a list — and then travel to these places.

4. Enable deep learning within your organization

Create infrastructures for deep learning inside your organization and team. That means giving your people the methods and tools to conduct sensing journeys — and creating space for generative conversation and dialogue. The objective is to link your people with wisdom and approaches that reach beyond your organization, so they can use that information to better focus on the challenges they face.

Conclusion

Breakthrough innovation starts with seeing something differently — sensing a different future potential so we can position ourselves and our enterprise to be part of making it happen. A computer on every desk, a phone that requires no wires, messages without envelopes, energy without fossil fuels — all of these absolutely game-changing innovations started with someone taking a different look at the future.

Today we live in a moment of profound disruption. That means that part of the leader’s job is to make sense of the larger societal changes. When you live in such a moment, you can’t rest on business as usual, or you run the risk of finding yourself on the wrong side of history. It was certainly painful to Zuckerberg and Facebook when they started to realize their own role in undermining American democracy.

To avoid a similar fate, leaders must strengthen their capacity to look at situations with fresh eyes, to inquire into issues with truly open minds and open hearts — which means breaking free of our various institutional and digital bubbles, so we can observe, retreat, and reflect.

Connected with a deepened sense of the future that wants to emerge, we can explore its potential through rapid-cycle prototyping and learning from the feedback of our key stakeholders. As Steve Jobs once said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward … Believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart.” That’s the only way to make the right choices, and it’s the only way do your best work.

Otto Scharmer

Otto Scharmer is a Senior Lecturer at MIT and cofounder of the Presencing Institute. He chairs the MIT IDEAS program for cross-sector innovation, which helps leaders from business, government, civil society innovate at the whole-system level. He is author of Theory U, second edition (translated into 20 languages) and coauthor of Leading from the Emerging Future. In 2015 he co-founded the MITx u.lab, a massive open online course for leading profound change that has grown to more than 100,000 users from 185 countries. His new book is The Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applications (Berrett-Koehler, 2018)

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