A few weeks ago I attended a reunion at my alma mater, Yale University. As they always do, Yale offered up some of its most articulate faculty and administrators to describe the current state of affairs at the University.
The array of talent, initiative, and innovation on display was dazzling. By the end of the two days, many of those of us who attended college decades ago were ready to sign up for another round — things have changed that much in the interim.
One surprisingly interesting session featured current administrators and faculty commenting on the current state of the University. One dean mentioned what she calls the Yale bubble. It seems that students expect, and routinely receive, such high levels of performance from themselves and from the institution that they experience culture shock when they step outside its boundaries.
As one current student put it, “At Yale, it can be easy to get absorbed in our work, our activities, and friends. It can be easy to surround ourselves with a nice little Yale bubble.” She goes on to describe how she and some of her friends broke out of that bubble to raise money for a disaster relief effort after a hurricane in the Philippines.
More recent events could be interpreted as showing the downside of the Yale bubble — a potential loss of balance and perspective as to what really matters.
Every enterprise creates its own nexus of practices, protocols, traditions, mythologies, and values — strands that together weave the fabric we call corporate culture. When you count over 300 years of history, $24 billion in the bank, and US presidents and other world leaders among your alumni, as Yale does, it’s easier than average to pull this off.
But every enterprise builds this cultural bubble, whether intentionally or not, and whether successfully or not. It’s an essential part of what binds people to the enterprise — and thereby to each other — in collective pursuit of some common goal.
In some cases the enterprise bubble is “bubble-istic” — fluid, transparent, and porous. It alternately expands and shrinks to fit new circumstances. It is welcoming and inclusive.
In other cases, the enterprise bubble is made of steel and concrete. It is hard, inflexible, exclusionary, and restrictive. (North Korea might fit this model, for example.)
In my experience, the enterprise bubble is typically more perceptual than anything more tangible. It defines a cognitive perimeter within which our perceptions of, and assumptions about, the world reside comfortably. It encourages us to look within the enterprise for answers to our questions and solutions to our problems.
The bubble renders it convenient to ignore things — people, ideas, events — in the ecosystem beyond that perimeter. Within our bubble, these “outside” factors are easily be dismissed as “not us, not ours, and not relevant to us.”
Expanding the cognitive perimeter of the enterprise (the dotted white line in the figure above) is a result of both (1) technical expertise in so doing, and (2) attitudinal openness to seeing things as those outside our bubble see them. The organizational “blinders” in most cases are far more limiting than the technological barriers.
When Sun Tzu spoke nearly 2500 years ago about The Art of War, he put the Self-Other duality at the center of the cognitive universe. He spoke specifically of the competitive benefits of integrating knowledge of the Self with knowledge of the Other. (“Knowing the other and knowing oneself, in one hundred battles no danger.”)
Sun may have been speaking literally of an individual warrior, but his writings have largely been understood by modern readers as referring to groups of purposeful individuals — to enterprises, in other words. Sun was essentially describing the need to look beyond our cognitive bubble to see the competitive world around us as it is — not as we imagine it or wish it to be. This “outside awareness” is both an individual capability and a management practice.
The modern commentator Peter Drucker used the term “significant Outside” in essentially the same way in describing the information leaders need. Drucker observed that value originates with customers — outside the enterprise — and that this should remain our primary consideration in the design of enterprise knowledge. (“The starting point [for management information] has to be what customers consider value.” – Management Challenges for the 21st Century)
Looking inward is something all organizations do routinely (whether effectively or not). Who is working on what? Who is having success? How can we collaborate to work better? Will our stock go up? Most of us are avid practitioners of Sun’s “Self”.
It is the rare organization that is the is the dedicated practitioner (let alone master) of Sun’s “Other”. We climb into our bubbles too easily, where everything is comfortable and makes sense. Then we are surprised when the ecosystem intrudes on our bubble — as, sooner or later, it always does.
How do you avoid this? The red arrows in the figure represent information about the ecosystem, of three major types — inbound, internal, and outbound. If the enterprise bubble is perceptual, our momentary “escapes” from it must likewise be perceptual. We must see clearly the driving elements in the competitive ecosystem outside our enterprise bubble.
Rigorous observation of competitor activities and intentions is in theory one way to transcend the bubble — but in practice too often it gets mired in minutiae and loses the overall direction and flow of what is happening in the competitive ecosystem. As a consequence, competitor information is often not translated into decisions and actions, but rather just adds to the background noise.
One technique we are using is Value Ecosystem Mapping, so that management and employees can see physically what their competitive ecosystem looks like (as in the example at left).
Ecosystem mapping starts interesting conversations that can lead to a reassessment of competitive strategies. It also fosters the penetration of enhanced competitive awareness to operational levels in the enterprise — where strategies either become results, or go to die.