Entropy & Echo Chambers

Lance Creativity, Ideas, Leadership Leave a Comment

Have you ever looked at the decisions a leader makes and wondered “How can they be so dumb?” This is increasingly a common refrain, as the disconnect between leaders and the people they lead becomes a lens through which those people view everything the leader says and does.

This is true in business, as employee engagement remains stagnant and low while distrust of corporate leadership is significant. It is even more true in politics, where the public’s faith in Congress, the news media, the political parties, and both of their nominees for President are at historically low levels.

There are many different factors that go into this, for sure. The distortion of perspective that comes from viewing decisions made without the benefit of all the information available to the decision-makers at the top is one. Another is confirmation bias, in which people’s judgment of the results of a leader’s decision is warped by the fact that they disagreed with the leader’s decision in the first place.

But the problem of leaders making really dumb decisions can’t be swept away by simply blaming the judges. There are problems on the leaders’ side of the ledger as well, but the easy answer — “the Leader is stupid, and managed to ascend to the rank of Leader based on something other than innate intelligence” — may be emotionally satisfying for the frustrated cynic, but isn’t likely true either. It may be possible — especially in the modern political arena, in which the systemic design incentivizes Image over Ideas — but not likely in most cases.

So, what happens in those cases where smart leaders begin making objectively dumb, often short-term focused decisions? Many times, those leaders fall victim to two things working in a reinforcing tandem:

  • the echo chamber of a team agreeing with itself and fearful of challenging the leader, or the consensus;
  • entropy – the devolution of a closed system over time.

When the culture surrounding a Leader is one that focuses on the emotional state of the leader, people tend to self-censor their own divergent opinions. In an effort to both avoid arousing the Leader’s anger and strive to curry the Leader’s favor, people tend to bring information that enables the Leader to see what the Leader wants to see. Not only is bad news filtered away from the Leader’s view, but new ideas that challenge the current trajectory and ways of doing things also fail to reach the Leader.

Echo chambers are rarely designed intentionally; they are more likely to be the unintended consequence of choices made for other reasons. But, regardless of why it exists, once a Leader and team find themselves within an intellectual echo chamber, bad things start to happen.


Once the echo chamber is in full effect, entropy kicks in. Just as a body of water with no incoming source of fresh water becomes stagnant and unusable over time, so too a group of decision makers with no incoming source of fresh ideas experiences the same gradual slide into stagnant terribleness.

When it comes to the problem of really stupid ideas, it isn’t that leaders are dumb, per se. The truth is that everyone becomes stupid inside an echo chamber. So, instead of taking cynical comfort in deriding the leader’s intelligence when terrible decisions are made, find a way to break up the echo chamber and start infusing new information and ideas into the system. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to make the Second Law of Thermodynamics work for you.



Captain of the Ship

Lance Integrity, Leadership Leave a Comment

I know it’s been awhile since I last wrote a post, but it hasn’t been for lack of wanting to. It’s just been that my normal blog writing time has been devoted to TEDxDayton prep work. Checking my calendar: October 14th is … now less than three weeks away!


As I was working on that this morning, I came across this great profile article on Airbnb’s CEO, Brian Chesky. Several things about this young leader learning as he goes caught my attention as worth preserving here and passing on:

1) What being the CEO/Leader really means:

“… I’m the captain of the ship. But I really have two jobs: The first job is, I have to worry about everything below the waterline; anything that can sink the ship.” He points to the scribbled line of waves that cuts the boat in half, and below that, two holes with water rushing in.

“Beyond that,” he continues, “I have to focus on two to three areas that I’m deeply passionate about—that aren’t below the waterline but that I focus on because I can add unique value, I’m truly passionate about them, and they can truly transform the company if they go well.” The three areas he’s picked: product, brand, and culture. “I’m pretty hands-on with those three,” he says. “And with the others I really try to empower leaders and get involved only when there are holes below the waterline.” (emphasis added)

2) The lesson learned during the biggest crisis to hit Airbnb:

“… my priorities completely changed,” says Chesky. “And I basically said I should stop managing for the outcome and just manage to the principle.” He needed to apologize, Chesky felt, even if it might hurt the company. …

Chesky’s primary takeaway from the experience was to stop making decisions by consensus. “A consensus decision in a moment of crisis is very often going to be the middle of the road, and they’re usually the worst decisions,” he says. “Usually in a crisis you have to go left or right.”

3) The importance of exposure to different ways of thinking:

A key aspect of Chesky’s [learning] theory is what he calls “synthesizing divergent ideas”—basically, going to unexpected sources for insight. To learn how to become an elite recruiter, for example, Chesky might skip talking to an HR exec and instead seek out a sports agent, whose business lives and dies by attracting talent.

To learn more about the leader behind one of the most incredible startup stories ever, read the whole thing.

Now, back to work for me. 20 days isn’t a long time…


What Do You See?

Lance Leadership, People 1 Comment

This is a picture I took this morning outside the back corner of our house. There is our junk-and-trash filled wheelbarrow brimming full with stagnant rain water. This picture is really unfortunate for a couple reasons:

  1. To mosquitoes, my blood is the sweet nectar of the gods. As a result, spending just one evening on the patio (which is right around the corner from this wheeled mosquito farm) like we did this past Saturday leaves me riddled with a dozen or so itchy bites that swell up like Will Smith on shellfish.
  2. The forgotten wheelbarrow has been sitting there so long that it has killed the grass beneath it.

The reason for this destructive eyesore is simple enough. Our neighborhood trash pickup day is on Friday, and we cleaned up the backyard on a Saturday. Instead of substantially filling up our lone trash can before the week even started, we decided leave it in the wheelbarrow and park it on the side of the house. The logic was sound: not only would doing so keep this mess out of sight to visitors and other passers-by, but it would also keep our trash bin open for our normal weekly trash buildup. As an added bonus, wheeling the yard waste out to the curb for pickup on the next Thursday night would be a cinch.

Except, as you can see, that didn’t happen.

For months.

Despite the best of intentions and the soundness of logic, once this wheelbarrow was put out of sight, it wasn’t long until it was out of mind. And because going around this side of our house rarely occurs, neither it nor its contents had many occasions to climb back into my mind and demand my attention. A couple of times over the summer I walked past it and remembered “Oh yeah! I need to dispose of this crap.” But, the few times that happened were always on a weekend, and by Thursday night, I had long forgotten it again.

This is what happens when the reality of things get hidden from our view.

Today is Labor Day, and on this holiday to celebrate the contributions working men and women have made to our country, seeing this wheelbarrow reminds me of how companies too often treat their people. As I have written before, it isn’t hard to find company after company in the news tossing their people overboard pursuant to a plan to “realign resources and gain efficiencies” as the Q3 results have come and gone and the end-of-year profit targets loom.

Yes, it is certainly true that abstraction is a necessary part of analysis, and thinking of employees as “FTE’s” and “capacity” is no crime, just as parking that wheelbarrow out of sight was not a bad idea in the abstract. The problem is when leaders lose track of how abstraction puts the humanity of their people out of sight, and the risk that, over time, this puts that humanity out of mind. Combating this requires conscious, deliberate choices to limit those abstracting ways of thinking and to connect with your “resources” as the people they really are.

As you celebrate Labor Day today and begin the post-summer homestretch of your year tomorrow, commit to really seeing your people more often than I saw my garbage-laden wheelbarrow this summer. Allow yourself to go too long without making this effort, and you’ll soon enough find yourself never thinking about these messy things at all.



The Focusing Power of “No”

Lance Discipline, Excellence Leave a Comment

I just love this.

We also established very clearly from the start that we’d never allow a customer to pay us more than that top-tier price. Not even for a customized version of Basecamp for a massive enterprise company that’s offering to throw $100,000 our way. We would never waver from our mantra: If you’re a big company with special demands, we don’t want your money.

We believe if you have a large pool of customers all paying you roughly the same amount, and then a small handful of customers paying you 100x that much, you’re no longer a product company — you’re actually a consulting company working for those big payers. You’ll do what they say because they pay.

Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson, and the rest of the crew at Basecamp understand the power of focus, of disciplined refusal, and of the humble aspiration of excellence. As they put it in their fabulous book, Rework:

Great businesses have a point of view, not just a product or service. …

We’re willing to lose some customers if it means that others love our products intensely. That’s our line in the sand. …

There’s no point in selling a few more sandwiches if the bread isn’t good. A few bucks isn’t going to make up for selling food we can’t be proud of.

It’s a message they have been living from their first days as 37signals, an interface design company of four:

Not Full Service

We’re designated hitters

We don’t do your database integration. Or your search engine submissions. Or your online media buying. We do interfaces and the strategy behind them.

Why? Because we think companies that claim they can do everything actually excel at nothing. That’s why we choose to do one thing and do it right.

Being Excellent often times meaning using the word “No” to leave money on the table and lay down the ambition of being the Biggest.



It’s So Simple

Lance Simplicity Leave a Comment

“Simple” is valuable because it is rare; “simple” is rare because it is so hard.

“Simple” is often confused with “easy,” which means running the risk of being judged as wanting to avoid doing the “hard” things.

“Simple” communication means running the risk of being judged as lacking a sufficiently intellectual vocabulary.

Using clear, “simple” language that aims for understanding instead of the byzantine legalese that seeks to cover every possible contingency means running the risk of being judged as too willing to run risks.

Proposing “simple” solutions means running the risk of being judged too unsophisticated for the modern world of complexity.

Using “simple” illustrations means running the risk of being judged an amateur.

“Simple” requires humility to be content with the problem being solved without expecting others to be impressed by the sheer complexity of the solution … and thus with the vast intellectual prowess of the mind behind the complex fix.

“Simple” requires innate self-confidence, because impressing others is not its concern.

“Simple” requires imagination, because following the rules rarely will take you there.