Why Thought Bubbles Can Derail Your Business
Strategic thinking requires letting go of assumptions.
Ask business leaders to identify the biggest threat to their organizations, and most will focus on external factors like new technologies, global competitors and unexpected changes in market conditions.
I believe the biggest threat is internal. Not just internal to the organization, but actually inside our own heads. What is this mysterious internal threat? Thought bubbles!
Thought bubbles are the deeply held beliefs and assumptions we have about the way the world works. Operating just below the conscious level, they determine how and what we perceive, and guide how we think and act. Thought bubbles tend to be self-reinforcing. They are always incomplete. They can limit our ability to achieve results. And they require constant updating to remain current.
In business, thought bubbles are the unspoken limiting beliefs about our customers, our markets and our industry that drive our decisions and behaviors. They tell us we don’t need to pause to get clear on winning. They cause us to overlook evidence that contradicts what we know to be true. And they get in the way of developing appropriate responses to changes in our markets.
Where do thought bubbles come from?
The human brain excels at taking in large amounts of data. We sift and analyze that data, and then form patterns. Most of this activity takes place just below the level of conscious awareness, so that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Once these unconscious patterns and responses get established, they can be very difficult to break.
To support our deeply held views of the world, the brain constantly screens in data that proves us right and screens out anything contradictory. When the world changes, as it does so quickly these days, our ingrained patterns of seeing the world a certain way cause us to filter, distort or ignore the information coming in. We see only what we want or expect to see. And we continue doing the same things the same way, without ever stopping to question whether we should start doing things differently.
The biggest danger with thought bubbles is that they keep us trapped in old ways of thinking. We can counteract this tendency to get stuck in the past by prompting the brain to look at the world in new and different ways. And that’s one area where those of us who spend inordinate amounts of time on airplanes and in hotels have a real advantage.
A different environment can serve as a wonderful prompt to slow down and take in new and different data that challenge our existing thought bubbles. It can help us see new processes being used, different patterns of movement and people interacting in new ways. It can shift our brains out of their usual information-gathering mode by providing new and different stimuli for us to process. The trick is remembering to pause and look around.
Imagine someone from your office going on a trip with you. What would they see that you don’t? What might they think about or process differently than you? What might cause them anxiety that you don’t even notice? Now reverse the thought process. When you return after time away from the office, work to process data differently than the “office warriors.” Pause and consider what is going on in your office and how it is different from what you see on the road.
These differences in feelings and perceptions are not good or bad. They’re just different. And those differences can help to refresh our brains and expand our view. The problem is that when we’re running so fast every day to keep up, we let the differences go unacknowledged and automatically assume everyone thinks like us.
How to Take Control of Your Thought BubblesHere are four strategies for controlling your thought bubbles rather than letting them control you.
Challenge your assumptions.
Once you learn to recognize your thought bubbles, challenge them! Deliberately seek out different perspectives, especially when they contradict your point of view. Ask “what if?” questions. Every time you have a thought bubble that says, “I am right!” deliberately pause and ask, “What if I’m wrong? What if there’s a different way to see this?”
Conduct an assumption inventory.
Gather your management team and ask questions like, “What has changed with our customers, our markets, our industry and the world at large in the past six months? What assumptions are we continuing to make simply because we ‘know them to be true’? Of these, which are no longer valid? How do we know that?”
Make your thinking transparent.
During meetings, make your thinking visible to others by stating your assumptions and describing the data that led to them. Test your conclusions by encouraging people to explore your data and assumptions and give you feedback. Encourage others to make their thinking visible as well. Ask questions like, “What leads you to conclude that? Where did those assumptions come from? What data do you have to support them?”
Identify your conventional wisdoms.
Conventional wisdoms are mass thought bubbles. They sound like: “Our customers have always wanted it this way; they’ll never change. We don’t have to worry about our service getting commoditized because we’re different and special. We can’t do it that way; nobody’s ever done it that way before.”
The next time you have a thought bubble, remember to pause and look at it from a different perspective. And the next time you’re on the road, use the different environment to prompt your brain to see things differently. You may be amazed to find that many of the assumptions and beliefs you’ve been holding onto for so long are no longer true!
Holly Green is the CEO of The Human Factor, Inc., an organizational and management consulting firm, and author of More Than a Minute: How to Be an Effective Leader and Manager in Today’s Changing World.