Does Your Organization Have Tunnel Vision?
Issue 99, March 16, 2023
You think you see a light at the end of the digital tunnel, and then you realize it is the blinding light of tunnel vision that has derailed you. In considering how to change, transform or simply adapt to changing conditions across a market or profession, organizations (including ourselves) often fall back to doing what we know best and what has worked in the past under different circumstances. Believing we already know how to handle a problem, situation or even a request from others brings comfort and a sense of personal competency. We hold onto a (possibly false) level of confidence that we know how to lead, despite the dynamics of change that define us and our organizations.
Stalled in the Past
Generally speaking, we rely on our inherent, accumulated knowledge and experience to understand organizational systems, technologies, and market conditions. In truth, however, that reliance typically comes from over-confidence in believing that things stay the same. To follow this logic then, it shouldn’t be surprising when we are stopped short in understanding how to solve new problems that don’t conform to our preconceived views.
At 2040, we work with clients to identify what prevents them from “seeing” and “knowing.” There are so many factors and variables that influence what should be considered and understood to inform an action they are about to take. There are other perspectives that can contribute to solutions. And there are more relevant ways to respond to and interact with others that result in better outcomes using collective intelligence.
Eliminating tunnel vision requires trust in yourself and others. It is tempting to think our quick answers relay intelligence, competence, and expertise to those around us. This is also based on trust that we are right. Or they think that we are right. By nature, humans are very trusting and want to avoid confrontation. They also don’t want to take responsibility to offer an alternative view that may compromise their own personal comfort and security.
The worst part of tunnel vision is that we don’t realize we have it. As such, we find ourselves continually challenged to go outside of ourselves to ensure we are objective and critical. And to do that we need to trust that change is empowering. So, let’s spend a few moments diving into some practical ways to avoid getting stuck in the tunnel.
There is no mutual language for the meaning of technology between the engineers and the rest of us. Our Western language construct is based on a medieval Christian-Judeo structure and its symbols and meanings have evolved over the centuries. But it does not have a language for technology. In other words, we try to apply symbols and meaning to technology based on 12th century ideas. The language of technology is mathematics, and trust me, most of us do not understand how to transcribe math into meaning and value in natural language.
But that’s not all.
Perhaps the biggest roadblock to understanding each other is bias. Professor Scott Galloway states that, “None of us is immune to our biases — that’s the nature of bias. You can’t read the label from inside the bottle. It’s easier to fool Americans than convince us we’ve been fooled.” He adds that most of us believe we’re part of a small cohort that sees the real issue and isn’t subject to bias fueled by the popular narrative. At 2040, core to our practice is to help leaders of all sizes and types of organizations recognize that the rest of the world does not think the way he or she does. We coach them to face their biases and refocus their thinking process to understand their customers, employees, and stakeholders – on their terms. It’s not easy to let go – especially for entrepreneurs and innovators who believe they have discovered the industry-changing solution, system, or service. But empathy is the new currency for leaders who aspire to be successful in today’s disintermediated society and marketplace.
Only Change Endures
Clocking in right after bias is change. As we have stated, people don’t like change; routine is always preferable because it is predictable. We have spent a career in learning how to complete tasks efficiently, how to navigate systems expertly, and how to run an organization smoothly. Once we master each task, the result is routine. The trap is that we are so comfortable solving problems the same way that we apply that strategy to new projects and business decisions. But the intrinsic problem is that we are stuck in only what we know and don’t know how to shift to what we don’t know with a new strategy better suited to solve an unanticipated business disruption or customer behavior shift. That leaves us in the wasteland of living in the past with antiquated approaches to next generation, emerging challenges.
A rigid mental construct does not benefit any leader and his or her stakeholders. All too often, we can become so rigid that we compromise the work and as well the outcome. When customers or clients seek creative ways to solve their problems or achieve their end goals, the rationale often comes encased in “not possible or too much work.” Or systems are too inflexible to accommodate the issue. Honestly, to do the same things repeatedly expecting different outcomes is insanity.
Breaking the Cycle
When we are lucid enough to recognize we are stuck, a popular way out is to resort to design thinking, group think, or whiteboarding to innovate our way out of dependence on outdated or irrelevant solution strategies. After all, innovation has become today’s hackneyed catch-all for a creative way to break the cycle.
That approach can work when led with open minds, safe spaces to ideate and non-judgmental team players. But if you take a step back, often what is being asked is possible and doable. It doesn’t necessarily require the “wisdom of crowds” to solve a problem. What it does require is to let go of rigidity and routine and honestly face the discomfort of change. Our self-limitations to what is possible is a litmus test of our character. As we move forward into an increasingly hybrid human/tech world, holding true to being human in a digital age will be our survival.
Let’s take an example of what’s happening more frequently in any modern business operation. Tightly trained data scientists and digital engineers often do not understand creatives – and vice versus. Creatives can be chaotic to any organization; they may not follow logical pathways to solve problems, they trust their intuitions and typically resist structure. They know they think differently and that the rest of the world is not always in synch, and in interactions with rigid followers of inflexible systems, the results can be a disaster in the making. Curiously, many creatives reveal original insights in their journey to finding solutions. The answer is in finding common ground, but our bet is on the rigid systems believers to be unable to find that space for productive conversations and team outcomes. One could argue that both sides have tunnel vision. And in a tech dominant business, the temptation is to make the digital experts the standard.
But as we have argued, critical thinking is essential in problem solving and leadership, and not always the strong suit of rigid thinkers. So, where does this leave an organization or team? The new role of a mediator (not just a facilitator) will become key to bridging the two worldviews and finding common ground. We’re in a transitional moment, and with AI and the breakthroughs in generative natural language programs, everyone is going to have to take a step sideways to release their firmly held beliefs and behaviors to adapt to a new reality. As Inc. recently reported, CEO Sundar Pichai’s response to disgruntled Google employees offers a useful lesson for every leader. “Sometimes the problem isn’t what you change, it’s how you talk about what you change.”
Clearing the Tunnel
So, back to tunnel vision. If we are operating on one track with a preconceived notion of that light at the end, chances are we are missing the bigger opportunity. Even if the light is a legitimate goal, the journey can be limited by lack of vision and understanding. We focus on this all-consuming challenge to transforming an organization as the human factor. In fact, that is the focus of our new book, The Truth About Transformation. Stepping outside our comfort zone and resisting the urge to see something different than what we are comfortable with and deviates from the routine, is truly the light at the end of the tunnel.
When you think about it, the survival of the human race is predicated on its ability to evolve. That runs counter to tunnel vision. So, why do so many leaders fall back on a strategy doomed for failure? Tomorrow’s successful leaders are creative, adaptive, empathic risk takers who balance their own worldviews with the needs and demands of their stakeholders. They will step away from the tunnel and move into the light. Even if they are initially blinded, they will learn to bend towards the light with grace under pressure, with the goal of relying on critical thinking to reason the way to the future.
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.