When I was growing up, there was the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the profound divisions in the world, running through one of the great cities of Europe like a scar. It was built before I was born, and any discussion of its dismantling was treated as pretty much rhetorical, even as I studied political science in my undergraduate degree. In many ways it seemed to be as permanent a fixture in Europe as the Alps.
And then, rapidly, things changed. The fall of the Wall was an enormous surprise to most in the West; watching the crowds of Germans taking it apart, sometimes with their bare hands, many were expecting shots to ring out, expecting a violent crackdown (which does, of course, happen during other uprisings). There were many forces acting to make this change happen, some deep economic and political conditions, as well as some quirks of history and individual actions, but broadly speaking we missed the signs that change was imminent, that the Wall could in fact come down.
So, how long do you think that Wall stood?
I recently bumped into the piece of trivia that the Berlin Wall was up for just 28 years. In retrospect, it seems surprisingly brief for something that loomed so large as a symbol of intractability. This little fact has been resonating with me, and I’m questioning how many things that, right now, I think represent the way things are in the world, but which are actually going to turn out to be relatively temporary in the scale of a lifespan. What about in my life, in my business, in the way I work?
History – like life, and certainly like business – is always full of surprises. What are the things that I see as unchangeable features of the landscape, which may in fact be transformed? What are the things in your business, your industry, your life, which you are taking as given, as set in stone, when in fact they could change if people – maybe you, maybe others – made different decisions? What would happen if they did change? Would you see changes coming?