Trapped in a Bubble

One of the dangers we all risk is getting trapped inside our own personal bubble. I noticed it yesterday in a conference call at work.

A group of us were working through a kick-off agenda for a new project where we are the consultants. I asked a new member of the team – a person who was brought into the organization for his PMO (Project Management Office) experience as well as his experience implementing a particular module of the software we’re working with – whether he could give me a few bullet points about user adoption for his module. There was a pause and then this very articulate, clearly very capable project manager said he didn’t think he could because that wasn’t his area of expertise.

Bwang! Enlightenment!

All at once I realized that I had been feeling intimidated by my new colleague’s experience, his knowledge of that particular module, his ability to speak the IT language, his experience as a Project Manager (capitalized, as opposed to my experience managing projects, not capitalized). He had been using terms such as RACI and CMM as if we would all recognize them. (Googling them made me realize that I did recognize them, but they were buried back in the dirt paths of my synapses, not on the superhighway synapses that I use every day. Thank goodness for Google – the tool that allows someone on a conference call to quickly pretend that they already knew what that word someone just used meant.)

At the same time, I recognized that change management is so ingrained in who I am, and so entwined in my way of managing projects (not capitalized) that I have gotten trapped in my own perspective and assumed that everyone else did, too. And, assuming that it was a skill that everyone had, I devalued it in my own mind, to the point where I devalued my abilities, my unique contributions, too.

It’s a mistake that many people make. It’s most clear when someone is trapped in the wrong job. They look at everyone else, who can do what they should be doing with ease, and struggle and wonder what’s wrong with them, and blame themselves. Take them out of that job and put them in a job that they are better-suited for – or reframe the original job for them to leverage their strengths and have meaning for them – and they start to succeed. Unless you’re a penguin, there’s no reason to walk to the top of the hill like everyone else, just use your wings to fly up. (Penguins have to walk, but don’t pity them because they are built for it and can outpace a human – or at least this human — any time.)

This is the danger of getting trapped in your own frame of reference. We see it sometimes with politicians or celebrities who are trapped in their own frame of reference and then say something ridiculous which makes you realize that they haven’t personally purchased something at a grocery store in the rememberable past (or possibly ever). Or when New Yorkers assume they can find a non-fast food restaurant open at 11 pm in a small town (easy to forget that’s why they call it the city that never sleeps), or when the elderly get confused by new technology.

I hear people my age (who have to have their kids program the DVR) telling their parents that using an iPhone is easy. Sorry, when someone still memorizes phone numbers so they can dial their flip phone – they don’t understand the idea of a contacts list and can’t figure out to how program it on the flip phone they’ve had for 10 years – you’re dealing with a whole lot of new concepts. The concept of an app. The concept of texting. The concept of being able to look at the record of a phone call (a phone call being something they previously conceptualized as something you listen to). The concept of touch screen.

Many years ago, I was teaching some store managers how to use the new computer system they were about to get. This was a huge step up from the DOS green-screen that sat in their stockroom and was used for one purpose: receiving merchandise as it entered the store. They were getting new hardware as well as new software, new Windows-based software. And they were struggling with the concept of using a mouse. (Yes, Virginia, instead of a mouse pad, there used to be a separate device that plugged into the computer that functioned as the mouse.) These were young (compared to me now), extremely capable managers, who knew how to do three functions on the receiving PC — run the opening routine; print daily messages; run the closing routine – and the first and the third only because they needed to read the daily messages in case their DM asked if they had reacted to the instructions received. They were extremely well-read (occupational hazard), could tell you the author of an unlimited number of books without looking them up, and could put their hand on anything they had in the store almost without thinking about it.

But their stores were small and it was the 90’s and personal computers were expensive and they didn’t earn enough to own a personal computer at home and so, had never used a mouse. In preparing our material, we had prepared for a lot of new concepts that had to be learned: using a PDT (one of those hand-held things you see store employees taking inventory with, you’ll recognize them because they beep as they scan); the concept of protecting your passwords; the wide range of information that they would suddenly have access to, all displayed on one screen because the geeks who designed the system liked being able to see everything on one screen and it didn’t occur to them to do eye-bounce tests or time how long it took the people who actually had to use the system to help a customer find the one piece of information that they needed 80% of the time (another bubble).

So, leading my first training class, I saw one of them pick up a mouse, peer at it curiously, and realized that we had missed a basic concept. We adjusted on the fly and added it to our basic training introduction for future classes.

You may laugh but I went through something similar a few years later when we gave the district managers laptops and they had to learn to use one of those eraser-type mouses. We started with, How Do I Turn This Thing On. The COO – a man who, incidentally, couldn’t work the office coffee maker – thought the class was a joke because he never struggled with those things, and cut the allotted time from 2 hours to 1 hour to 30 minutes, all in real time, while I was actually teaching the class.

We see it also in project management. The project team becomes so focused on getting the darn thing they’re building (whatever it is) to work, that they lose sight of the perspective of the employees who actually have to use the darn thing when it rolls out. Communication to the employees that hey, something’s coming, that you’re going to love it, here’s how it’s going to improve your day, here’s how to use it, and here’s how to know you’re using it right – all that communication gets condensed into a single announcement the week before the darned thing rolls out, followed by a webinar (or eLearning, if you’re lucky) about which buttons to push, and then a series of FAQs answering the questions that weren’t anticipated, and finally a demand by someone in charge that everyone start using the darned thing now.

That’s why I do change management. Because I enjoy getting inside other people’s bubbles and figuring out how to help them let new information in, and succeed.

And I recognize that it’s not a skill everyone has.

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