Are you aware of your or your organization's blind spots? 

If you answered yes, you're just plain wrong. They wouldn't be blind spots, if you knew about them. The question is, how can you diagnose them before they sink you, manifesting themselves in a powerful, disruptive, surprising new competitor?

One way is to make sure you're not living in a bubble. Which is easier said than done. Hal Gregersen, who coauthored The Innovator's DNA with disruption-coiner Clayton Christensen and Jeffrey Dyer, once explained to me why. "A disruptive question...is one that someone else [e.g. an upstart competitor] is asking that you aren't," he said. "And the higher you go in a company, the harder it can be to uncover you don't know what you don't know."

There are two reasons it can be hard for leaders to discover what they don't know. First, in most organizations, you get promoted not for asking questions but for providing answers. You advance by voicing glib sound bites, not edgy hypotheticals. Second, once you ascend to the CEO seat, there are barriers precluding your interaction with anyone who might nag you with those hypotheticals. For example, only a select few employees--also high-ranking--report to you directly. And those direct reports tend to kiss your ass and prepare you with "talking points" that will make sure no one gets upset. "It's an insulated world, where the blind spot is not explored," added Gregersen, who is the executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and a senior lecturer in the MIT Sloan School of Management

The race for the White House is a powerful reminder that blind spots can be issue for presidential candidates, too, according to Gerald Kane, an associate professor of information systems at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. "Why are so many U.S. Republican presidential candidates still in the race despite single-digit poll numbers?" writes Kane on the MIT Sloan Management Review site. "The answer could lie in the way they, like many of us, filter digital content--making it more likely they'll find data that confirms existing views."

Specifically, Kane is referring to the way candidates (or any of us) use social media. "When social media tools provide the ability to find the content we most want to read, we are most likely to search out content that confirms our existing views," Kane writes. And if you use Facebook or Twitter on a regular basis, you know what he means. Algorithms recognize the content you've "liked" or "retweeted" in the past and keep feeding it to you. As a result, you're less likely to see content that differs from your own preferences, unless it comes from that politically "out there" uncle or in-law. 

The result is another form of the insulated bubble. Kane notes that Eli Pariser, former executive director of MoveOn and co-founder of media-curating site Upworthy, has called this "The Filter Bubble," using the term in both a TED talk viewed by more than 3 million and a 2011 book of the same title. Kane also points out that this way of thinking about the perils of filtering online content goes back to a 2001 essay by Cass Sunstein, which asked whether the Internet was really a blessing for healthy democratic debate.

Kane's overall idea is that leaders--in both politics and business--must become aware how social media can create filter bubbles that blind them to voter and customer realities. Otherwise, you could make some serious mistakes. "For example, when Dell Inc. decided to use social media to launch Linux laptops, the effort yielded lackluster results, partly because Dell failed to recognize that the online voices were not representative of a larger customer base," Kane writes. 

Likewise, he points out, "Twitter sentiment nearly unanimously supported Scotland's independence from the United Kingdom during a 2014 referendum." In reality, the referendum failed: More than 55 percent of Scots rejected it.

The lesson is a handy reminder to always supplement--and reality-check--social media data with other sources. Gregersen suggests that you create internal disruptive teams, expressly tasked with escaping your organizational bubbles and uncovering what you, as a collective, do not know.

You should also set aside time every day to sit, think, and actually write down relevant questions--about yourself and your organization--that you do not know the answers to. This activity will help you articulate the potentially disruptive threats for your company.  

Over time, says Gregersen, you'll be able to review your lists of questions, and notice the prevailing patterns. Those patterns will likely be the basis of your blind spots. Use that information break out of your bubble and identify competitive threats, before they threaten your organization.

Published on: Feb 10, 2016