Thomas M. Cagley Jr.

The real world has proven over and over again that it is a dynamic system.   Decision making in this environment, especially as it relates to process improvement, requires a steady influx of new knowledge and information to have an even reasonable chance of getting an answer that works.  Unfortunately that flow of information can be throttled.  Once throttled, metaphorical walls begin to be built around a leader.  These walls create an echo chamber which reinforces ideas, concepts or models that are comfortable rather than new or different and potentially uncomfortable.  This is basic human nature therefore requires you to actively resist raising your shields and loading photon torpedoes at the drop of the hat.

Comfort and process improvement leader are phrases that can’t exist together, much akin to the relationship between suffering and great art.  As a leader if you are comfortable you are not trying hard enough.  How does comfort with a specific process, concept or model happen when by definition it shouldn’t?  Generally success; personal success or success reflected from a boss or mentors are key culprits.  Regardless of where it comes from success is a seductive force leading some to try the same solution over and over. I do not suggest that you avoid success or route for failure but rather that you do not become comfortable with one solution or idea.  If you let success and comfort translate into building walls between you and other ideas you are creating an echo chamber.  I suggest that you have started down the road to failure because the world changes, the environment changes and people change even if your solutions do not and if you are very unlucky that failure when it comes will not be quick.

Another set of problems are the feedback loops generated within micro-communities.  Micro-communities have become common ranging across email bulletin boards and the new wave of social media tools.  Social media tools have created tools to support hyper focus by connecting people more easily without regard geography or time zone (no one really sleeps).  These micro-communities while they can tear down walls also can lead to walls between people and ideas being built as the community evolve to become more than a sum of the individuals.  The issue is not the communities per se but rather the degree that many of these communities build enforcement mechanisms to guard their catechism.  Enforcement creates an echo chamber which can lead to the belief that there aren’t new ideas or dissenters.  When all we hear is how good an idea is the less likely we are to consider different ideas, tactics and strategies when making decisions.  Therefore as the environment and context changes these strategies and tactics work drift away from center of the bull’s-eye.  Failure at this point is a matter of time not of probability unless new information is accepted into the decision making process.

Regardless of how walls around ideas are formed, walls create weakness in the decision process.  Walls either reduce or stop feedback that could differ from your current point of view.  When walls exist, feedback will tend to be from sources that think similarly creating the echo chamber noted before.   The common social media term for this behavior is “tribes” (popularized by uber-blogger and author Seth Godin).   Godin suggests:

“Internet has ended mass marketing and revived a human social unit from the distant past: tribes. Founded on shared ideas and values, tribes give ordinary people the power to lead and make big change.”[1]

These tribes are micro communities that can foster and nurture new ideas until they can be absorbed into the core.  An example in our world is the agile movement.  Once upon a time, agile was a radical concept.  Micro-communities adopted these methods and ideas and nurtured until now they are merging into the core software development processes.  Great stuff until the tribe or micro-community creates walls that stop them from listening to the environment and context around them and emulate the Anasazi Indians (great pueblos but not much left of the tribe).  Creating too thick of walls will starve the micro-community of information that is needed to continuously challenge current ideas and concepts.  Diversity of ideas helps ensure that the ideas and concepts that are finally accepted and leave the incubator of the micro-community have been challenged intellectually before they have to compete head-on with more entrenched positions.  The truism that finding problems in software before you implement it is less expensive and painful is equally true for ideas, concepts and strategies.

I think we have all heard the definition of insanity; “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” attributed to Einstein and strive to avoid falling into that trap. The problem is that many of us have the expectation that a strategy for change that worked once will work again.  As change agents we must remember that regardless of how close the context appears, it is different.   It is different if for no other reasons than time has passed and both you and those you are leading in change have been exposed more life events.   Have you constructed an echo chamber?    Decisions in an echo chamber put you and your change program at risk.  To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “Mr. Change Agent, open your mind!  Mr. Change Agent, tear down this wall!”

[1] Seth Godin, “Seth Godin on tribes we lead”, TED2009,  http://www.ted.com/talks/seth_godin_on_the_tribes_we_lead.html