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Avoiding the echo chamber

March 29, 2013

Finding a friend who will agree with you is no great accomplishment. But, a friend who will disagree and remain your friend is rare indeed.

I call it the “echo chamber.” People who only want to associate with people who agree with them. It’s understandable. What sane person likes to argue?

Actually, now that I think about it, there are a lot of people on the internet who just appear to like to argue. I might have to reassess my definition of crazy. When you go to the comments section of a news story, or a facebook page that is clearly political, you can see thousands and thousands of comments from people who seem to like arguing.

I’ve never understood why once a comment thread gets to a few hundred comments with everyone simply shouting at each other, why anyone would bother to comment. You are throwing your words into the void at that point.

So, many people retreat the other way. They avoid those locations. They don’t talk politics on their wall and they unfriend those friends who are too political.

And then there’s a third group. The group that WANTS to talk politics, but only with people who agree with them. Whether they are for the donkey or the elephant, they don’t want to entertain ideas from those they disagree with.

A couple years ago, I ran into a friend of a friend who cultivated a healthy debate on his facebook page. Don invited people from all political stripes to come and share ideas and talk politics. He’s on the opposite side of the aisle from me politically, but we both enjoy a good civilized debate.

We teamed up and created a private facebook group and invited people who also liked a civilized political debate. Our group had a difference though. First, we actively recruited people from both sides. We specifically set out to avoid the echo chamber. And second, we set rules.

Actually, we only set one rule: No personal attacks.

And a pretty amazing thing happened. We talked. We debated. We argued, sometimes for hundreds of comments in a thread about every aspect of politics. And we did it without the usual rancor and venom found on most discussion boards.

Not everyone could handle abiding by our one rule. Occasionally, we’d invite someone and they felt that “Liberalism was a disease!” Or “Teabaggers were destroying the country.” But, those people didn’t last long. And as a moderator I was worried about the need to kick people out. But, in 90% of the cases, I didn’t have to. The people removed themselves.

And then I started to understand. There are some people who cannot stand the idea that those they disagree with can be good people too. Not only that, those people they disagree with might even sometimes be right. And most surprising of all, those people they disagree with might actually become friends.

It’s been an amazing experience to be part of.

So, what does this have to do with business?

Too often, we want to surround ourselves with “Yes men (and women.)” People who will agree with us and not make us challenge our ideas. Or, worse, we start to view people with whom we disagree as “the enemy,” or less intelligent, or somehow “bad.”

The most powerful leaders I’ve ever worked with encouraged dissent. They wanted their team to point out the weaknesses of a project, or a program. Because, they then could fix the problem before it hit the marketplace, or the senior manager roundtable.

As a leader, I’ve tried to hire people or recruit people to my team who were not only good at what they did, but willing to stand up for those beliefs.

Late one night we were dealing with a NetApp storage array. It was connected to the rest of the network via two redundant fabric interconnects. We were patching the B-side of the fabric interconnect and it wouldn’t come back online properly.

The NetApp appliance held about 80% of our network storage. Breaking the connection would have knocked all of our virtual machines into a read-only state. We would have to go through one by one and fix them. We’d done it before on accident and it took hours to recover. None of us were interested in doing it on purpose.

Cisco recommended that we reboot the A-side. Their logic was that once the working A-side disappeared, the B-side would realize it needed to become the primary device. However, there was a chance that we would lose all of our network connections in the interim.

As we were discussing the implications of this, a network engineer overheard our discussion.

“No! DO NOT reboot the A-side! You should reboot B instead.”

“This really isn’t your area. And the vendor recommended that we reboot A.”

“I DON’T CARE what the vendor said. If you reboot A, we’ll lose the connections to the network for hours. Rebooting B will fix it!”

Understand that this was about 2:00AM and we’d all been working all night on our maintenance tasks. The NetApp appliances were only one part of a bigger maintenance project. Also, the network engineer was not even assigned to the NetApp project. No one would have said a thing to him if he’d just kept his mouth shut.

We talked it over as a management team and decided to take his advice. This didn’t sit too well with some of our storage engineers who really wanted to follow the vendor’s advice.

We reboot B and everyone held their breath. Well, not really since it takes about 30 minutes to reboot. Finally, B came online and it’s status showed all green. The problem was solved and we did not have a network outage.

Had we recruited engineers who were interested in the echo chamber, that night would have been much longer.

Don’t be afraid to let people disagree with you, they will surprise you with the solutions they suggest.

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