Bursting the Bubble - Intentionally Encountering Difference

By Josh Epperson

Tuesday, January 31st 2017

Do you ever buy anything off Amazon? If your family is anything like ours, Amazon packages arrive weekly, sometimes multiple times throughout the week. When it comes to online sales, Amazon is king. In 2015, Amazon generated about 60% of total online sales. Highly personalized marketing is one of the many secrets to their success. The algorithms that make product recommendations for you made up 35% of Amazon's consumer purchases. When it comes to shopping, Amazon believes we want more of what we want.

I’ve been thinking about these personalized algorithmic recommendations because I recently signed up for a personal shopper on Stitch Fix. The sign up process includes creating a personal style profile based on your preferences. There is one question though that is less about your preferences, and more about how willing you are to deviate from those. It’s the best question, and may be the reason I no longer wear cargo shorts. The question is “How adventurous should your Fixes be?”  Here’s what you get to choose from:

  • Extremely: Bring it on – I am into trying out new brands and trends

  • Moderately: I would like some items to expand my style boundaries

  • Never: Keep my clothing based on my current style

In other words, how much do you want your stylist to deviate from what is familiar and comfortable? How willing are you to embrace what’s new and different? This is more than a question of style. This is a question for the whole of life.

At what point does the search for what I want, what I need, or what I believe become so narrow that I miss out on the foreign, yet critical information that is beyond me and my insulating algorithms? As a shopper, a civilian, and a leader, we must all ask, “How impenetrable is my bubble?”

As leaders, we’re often confronted with circumstances that demand we leave our cozy bubbles. Consider when the scope and scale of your role increases. Perhaps you’re a great operator, but managing people just isn’t your thing. But now, in your new role, you have seven direct reports. Will you double down on your operations expertise or will you get out of your bubble and get input from respected people managers and approach it differently than how you’ve done it in the past? Or, perhaps you are the founder of a midsize organization, and your company’s growth is predicated on surfacing completely new opportunities. Will the answer be, “Do more of what we’ve done, just do it faster and better. It’s what we built this company on!” Or will you consider adjacent opportunities that reside beyond the bubble of your expertise or the company’s historic success?

When defining the next iteration of your leadership or surfacing the necessary transformation for your business, how adventurous will you be? If your response is, “Never,” you’ll remain indefinitely stuck. However, if you’re willing to move toward, “Moderately,” or, “Extremely,” you’re well on your way.

Understand the barriers that insulate your leadership and business.

Do others look to you for advice and counsel on the future state of the business? Are you removed from its day-to-day operations? Are you considered a favored class by other leaders? Does your expertise distance you from those ‘not in the know’? If you answered, “Yes,” to any of these questions your bubble is significant. The more you answered, “Yes,” the tougher it will be to burst. The barriers between you and others were likely created unintentionally, but it is only intentional dialogue that will eliminate them.

Name the walls you’ve erected.

Some barriers are givens, others we create. What are they and how have they served you? Do you horde information? It’s often used as a wall to ensure you’re valuable. Do you lean on historic success? It’s usually a way sidestep not knowing what to do in the future. Do you keep your reporting relationships as objective as possible? Often it’s explained as an approach to ensure rational and logical, verses emotional, leadership. However, it’s frequently used to keep your emotional distance. Do you intentionally seek out the perspectives of those who think like you? You’re insecure about your opinions, and are hungry for validation. If you have to create value with someone who is different than you or in an unprecedented way, you must learn to move beyond your walls. The quicker you can own how they have insulated your leadership from what’s required of it, the better.

Don’t expect difference to come knocking.

Go seek out difference. If you’ve spent any portion of time building walls around you and your world, expect the bulk of people in your life to look elsewhere when it comes to sharing their thoughts and opinions with you. Change up your routines and relationships. Seek out and embrace the nay-sayer or voice of dissent. Do something different; try something new. It will feel unfamiliar and awkward, but it will move you in the right direction. Use the reflections above (about your walls and what’s required to bring them down) as conversational fodder to break into worlds you have intentionally kept at bay. Don’t expect them to come to you. Get out of your chair. Get out from behind your email. Pick up the phone. Walk down the hall. Go share a meal. And let them teach you about what you’ve been hiding from.

Two words of advice. ALIGN and STRETCH (yourself, not your jeans). Align the degree of diversity (e.g., thoughts, beliefs, experiences, knowledge, values) required for a successful outcome with your deviation from what is familiar and comfortable. Stretch yourself and the people you lead to progress one click on the adventurous continuum. From Never to Moderate. From Moderate to Extremely. Our future, and perhaps your wardrobe, depend on it.

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