Don’t Get Stuck In Your Company’s Echo Chamber

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The last weeks, I have attended several conferences and events and I have noticed a remarkable difference between public and company internal conferences. The internal conferences have a tendency to have a set of themes that everyone talks about in the same way. Whether it’s ecosystems, blockchain, artificial intelligence or any other popular topic, everyone in the company seems to be talking about the topic and its implications for the company in the same way.

Successful companies tend to have a strong culture, sometimes bordering on a cult, and the definition of a culture of course is a common set of norms, values and behaviors. Although the company culture is an important element, there are several risks associated with it. Here, we’ll discuss three.

First, some of the companies that I work with have a tendency to create a set of stories about themselves, their ecosystem and their expectations about the future that in some way become self-fulfilling prophecies internally. The danger is that it may lead to companies investing significant resources based on a set of beliefs in the company that are not aligned with reality. The problem is that, sometimes after years of investment, the product or service is released and is met with a deafening silence because the internal beliefs are not aligned with market reality.

Second, especially companies that have been very successful at some point tend to get stuck with what made them successful in the past. So the prioritizations, the ways of working and view of the customers and their needs stay with what has made the company successful in the past and fail to evolve. This is especially seductive because successful companies became that way because they went against the grain of the industry and acted on a counter-intuitive belief that turned out to be successful. It’s very easy to stay with that belief, even when reality has passed you by.

Third, the strong culture has a tendency to kill new innovations and ideas in the company as there is no or very little space for dissenting voices. So, any new concept gets killed in the cradle before it has a chance to prove (or disprove) itself. And the interesting thing is that the discussion tends to circle around why a new idea can never work and the opinions of people at the company reinforce each other.

The common denominator of the risks discussed above is that the company has become an echo chamber where people tell each other what they expect to hear and repeat the same things that other have shared with them. This is very natural human behavior that we all tend to gravitate to as we want to be liked by those in our community and the easiest way to be liked is to agree, share common opinions, norms and values and repeat what others likely want to hear.

How do we break out of this echo chamber and avoid getting stuck in it? Well, the key is connect with people in your “weak network” or even people completely outside your network. To observe, learn and start to understand other points of view with the intent of bringing these concepts back to your own organizations. In many internal conferences I am the only outsider and then it’s my role to bring new viewpoints, ideas and concepts to the participants.

A second mechanism is to attend industry conferences, but again ensuring that you don’t get stuck in the same echo chamber, but now at the industry level. One conference that aims to offer novel, fresh insights and that I am very much looking forward to is the upcoming Software-Centric Systems conference SC2. Of course, I may be biased as I am involved in the organization of it, but if you happen to have some time on October 10 and are able to take yourself to Eindhoven, there are few better ways to spend your day than attending SC2!

Concluding, successful companies tend to have strong cultures as the culture is instrumental in aligning the efforts of many people. However, this strength has its inherent risks, including creating self-fulfilling prophecies, getting stuck in the past and killing promising new innovations. Don’t get stuck in the echo chamber of your own company but instead make sure you get inspired from many and very diverse sources. It’s by far the best insurance for staying relevant!

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Academic, angel investor, board member and advisor working on the boundary of business and (software) technology