Marshall McLuhan once pointed out that “Fish did not discover water,” going on to explain that, “in fact, because they are completely immersed in it, they live unaware of its existence. Similarly, when a conduct is normalized by a dominant cultural environment, it becomes invisible.”
We are all immersed so deeply in something that it becomes invisible to us. To those of us who swim in digital transformation, what’s new is what’s normal. We already live and work in a world where the world’s largest media companies create no content, the most valuable taxi service has no fleet, and one of the biggest brands in hospitality doesn’t own a single room let alone an entire hotel full of rooms. Why shouldn’t this be the case? I spend so much time thinking about the digital future that I have little difficulty imagining a world where artificial intelligence, virtual reality and connected everything are all part of the environment. Do you mean we’re not already living in this world today? What’s more, I feel this way despite the fact that I am, technically speaking, a digital immigrant – albeit one who, like the so-called boiling frog, was immersed in the water early enough that I barely noticed as my cool pool became a bubbling sea of change. Yet, I work hard to remain aware that what might be the normal environment to me can appear to be an alien landscape to others.
This is important because inside the fishbowl, it’s easy to lose a sense of perspective. And when advising others on how to navigate change or deal with disruption, it’s actually anoutside perspective that matters most. This is a theme I’ve returned to a number of times over the years – reminding early adopters to remember that they are indeed ahead of the curve before flitting off to some next new thing, urging experts to become (or at least think like) beginners, and making a case for considering matters through the eyes of someone who takes the opposite point of view. And it’s, of course, the point McLuhan is making when he points out that fish did not (could not possibly) discover water, because discovery of one thing requires knowledge of another.
I try to keep this in mind when guiding clients through digital transformation. It might be difficult to see how analog executives struggle to embrace transformation because to me the signs of change are all around us and clear to see. It’s often just as difficult for these executives (for people in general) to see the opportunities that lie beyond their boundaries. This is why, for every time I urge a client to “come on in, the water’s fine,” I also make a point of sprouting legs and strolling from the sea in order to discover some common ground.