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Don't fall in love with a bad idea.

In a scene from the classic 70s action film, “Enter The Dragon,” martial arts star Bruce Lee berates his student for thinking too much and not “feeling” his surroundings.


Lee holds up his index finger skyward: “It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon.”


The student’s eyes focus so hard on Lee’s pointer that he misses the other hand smacking him hard on his head.


“Don’t concentrate on the finger,” Lee warns, “or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”


Lee’s lesson would be a wise one for businesses to heed.


Tunnel-visioned executives and founders are prone to drinking their own Kool-Aid over such obviously wrong ideas that they don’t see the cliff they’re about to drive off when those ideas come to fruition.


I call this phenomenon a Kool-Aid Bubble.

Bruce Lee and his student in famous pointing finger scene.

Everybody in a Kool-Aid Bubble imagines all will be perfect when the announcement they've been working on is out in the world. Without any objectivity entering the conversation, they envision victorious press coverage, especially if it means putting one over a rival or raking in more revenue. 

They stare hard at “Bruce Lee’s finger” but unfortunately miss the big “heavenly glory” entirely.

Mark Cuban said on Lex Fridman's podcast: "One of the things entrepreneurs do that I always try to remind any that I work with is -- we all tend to lie to ourselves."

A surefire sign of a Kool-Aid Bubble is a memo or press release that lands exactly the opposite of what its senders had expected. Here are three recent miscalculations that went spectacularly wrong: 

NBC News logo

NBC News’ unseemly fumble signing former Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel as a paid contributor for the Presidential Election cycle. Executives underestimated how radioactive McDaniel’s reputation was, including her history attacking NBC’s own journalists.

On a Friday afternoon, a deliriously effusive memo was distributed to the staff (“It couldn’t be a more important moment to have a voice like Ronna’s on the team”), who welcomed the news like a Covid spreading event. By Tuesday morning, McDaniel was gone, ruining the organization’s credibility with both its talent and Republicans, spurring speculation that the chairman may not survive the ordeal.

When Delta Air Lines announced draconian changes to their SkyMiles program last September, it angrily riled the company’s longtime customers. They felt their loyalty was being unfairly tested when the requirements to achieve and maintain elite status were raised to difficult new heights. The biggest uproar came from Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express card holders, whose annual SkyClub lounge visit allowance was cut back dramatically.

The fury reached such a pitch that one month later, Delta CEO Ed Bastian publicly walked back all the changes: “No question, we probably went too far.” 

Delta Airlines Logo.png
Balenciaga logo

Fashion house Balenciaga hired its third artistic director in four years, iconoclast Demna Gvasalia, giving him plenty of leeway to stir up controversy for buzz: selling destroyed sneakers for $1,850, dressing runway models like refugees, and putting Kim Kardashian in a head-to-toe black body stocking for the Met Gala.

Finally, Demna went one step too far when Balenciaga unveiled a campaign featuring children holding teddy bears in bondage gear and another with child pornography law documents. Accusations of child exploitation produced a walloping #cancelBalenciaga campaign, forcing Balenciaga into endless apologies and filing a questionable $25 million lawsuit against the ad’s set designer. 

Those blindsiding mishaps were followed by a range of resentment, contrition, finger-pointing, and ducking for cover because it was every man for himself after going all in on a certifiable dud.

However, incidents like these call for introspection above all. Because of that single-minded focus on a lump of coal, every Kool-Aid Bubble usually shares this fatal flaw: no feedback was solicited outside the walls of the c-suite. Given the sizes of NBC, Delta and Balenciaga, you have to wonder what kind of field homework, if any, they did before they got egg on their faces.

Underneath every Bubble, a faulty communication structure disconnects the two most important pieces of an internal safety check. On one hand, senior management isolates themselves from the rest of their company, and on the other, their most important stakeholders are cut off from giving critical feedback.

Not surprising knowing a 2016 online survey conducted by Harris Poll found 70% of managers are uncomfortable speaking with their employees!

If NBC News approached their editors or anchors about McDaniel as a possible contributor, Delta ran its SkyMiles changes by some of its most loyal customers, or Balenciaga previewed its campaign to customers with children, the odds are they could have averted their respective blow-ups.

“Achieving connection – authentic meaningful connection – is the most important thing in life.”

In his book Supercommunicators, Charles Duhigg writes: “Achieving connection – authentic meaningful connection – is the most important thing in life.”

An “authentic meaningful connection” is not just with your peers but the constituencies whose reactions can be the difference between rethinking a flawed concept you and your colleagues are smitten with or plowing ahead into a possible disaster.

Frankly, who wants to be remembered for trumpeting the greatness of Nike's re-designed baseball uniforms, New Coke or Quibi, only to fall flat on their face with an ice-cold reception?

Instead, open the metaphorical door of the executive conference room
because being stuck inside a Kool- Aid Bubble is stifling.

Give a few of your most prized staff and loyal customers discreet seats at the table before you even push for final sign-off for any big move. Run it by them – “What do you think?” “How will people feel? Why?” “Do you see any downside?”

They will be flattered with your trust and giving them a voice in the company’s next steps. The prize in return? Honesty without repercussions. They are likely saving you serious embarrassment and possible financial penalties in the future.

Given the intense scrutiny brands are given by their customers as well as zealous cultural and political groups, it is safer for all of you to put down glass of self-made Kool-Aid and have wiser outside guests bring their own drinks to the table.

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