In the hallway, late on Thursday, someone tells a bit of information about your product that is 100% provably not true. You laugh, wink at the person, and say, “That’s goofy. What reasonable human would believe that?” And that conversation moves on.
Two hours later, different locations, different humans, and different contexts. Same exact piece of provably false information is shared with you. Your brain mentally perks up because here’s this laughable bit of data you’ve heard twice in the same day. Now, you’re curious. Now, you ask questions, “Weird. Where’d you hear that?”
To which they honestly say, “I don’t know.”
Twenty-four hours later, this silly bit of information is your entire life. It’s all you are focused on. You’ve had two meetings with stakeholders to strategize how to counteract this immortal lie.
It’s a Contagion, and while I can not tell you how to fix it, you must understand the rules, behaviors, and personalities influencing and contributing to its creation and why it thrives.
An Incomplete List of the Communication Rules
There are rules which govern communication in large groups of humans. Habits or tendencies are a better word, but I call these rules because of the significance of their impact. While these certainly apply to very large groups of humans, for this piece, I’m focused on the groups of humans within a company. This is an incomplete list of rules.
- The amount of information created, interpreted, and shipped around a group of humans is a function of the number of humans in the group.
- Similarly, the amount of noise introduced into a given piece of information increases as a function of the number of humans exposed to it.
- Simpler thoughts travel farther faster.
- The higher the perceived value of a piece of information, the faster it moves amongst a group of humans.
- The perceived value of a piece of information is terrifically situational. For example, you would care a lot to know a layoff is coming to your company. You’d be curious to learn there was a layoff in a different but similar company, and you wouldn’t care much to learn that a jean factory in Austin, Texas, had a layoff.
- Humans hate (hate!) not knowing things. In the absence of information, humans tend to make things up to fill the vacuum. This is generally considered but is not always framed as gossip.
- The further information travels from the source, the harder it becomes to confirm its veracity and source.
- The higher the stress of a group of humans, the more they are willing to accept increasingly goofy explanations for that stress.
- The quality of a piece of information decreases by 10%1 each time it crosses a significant communication membrane. These significant membranes are: from one team (or organization) to another, up or down one level of an org chart, or when information is transferred between humans who are strangers. There are many contributions to the degradation, including the complexity of the thought, the transmission medium (in-person — low degradation, email — higher), the distance from the source, and, sadly, the time it takes to explain the thought.
- With each hop, humans tend to tweak information in their favor.
- Finally, humans tend to create echo chambers full of partial truth because: Humans like to hear things they agree with from people they know, and humans don’t want to hear things they don’t agree with, especially from strangers.
I will describe two critical information networks in a moment, but to understand their construction, you need to understand the constituent parts of a network. There is the information traveling the network, the rules which govern how the information moves (described above), and finally, there are the nodes, the humans, which comprise the network. I see four types of nodes:
Basics The majority of the nodes. A human who is capably receiving, interpreting, creating, and transmitting information in any direction. Good job.
Our next three are exotic nodes, and they exhibit very specific behavior worth understanding:
Gossips/Mutators. These humans infect the communication network with speculation and half-truths for sport. They like the high when they speculate on a thing, and you immediately remark, “Wait. No way?”
Nodding happily, “Way.”
Don’t judge this node too harshly. It’s clear that if you stand right next to them and hear them speak, they think they’re just having fun making up tantalizing bits of information. The problem is that each time they construct something super juicy, it travels further and mutates more.
Perhaps the more costly behavior of the Gossip is that they also mutate incoming information using the same “skill.” Looks like this:
An intriguing piece of information X appears in front of the Gossip. They think: It’s interesting, but you what would be more interesting? If I tweak this fact a bit. Now it’s juicy. This variant of the Gossip, I call the Mutator.
Ok, you can judge them harshly now. They are mostly not helping by creating unnecessary confusion.
Amplifiers Similar to the Gossips, an Amplifier finds joy in knowing and transmitting things. Unlike Basics and Gossips, they work to transmit the information unaltered. We’ll discuss network construction in a moment, but — spoiler alert — Amplifiers are precious nodes in your network.
Black Holes This aptly described node eats information. Their motivation is similarly opaque. Maybe they are tired of the half-truths wandering the network. Perhaps they have strict principles regarding information transmission. I don’t know. What I do know is that information arriving at Black Holes never leaves. That’s an exaggeration, you can pry it out of them, but their desire to hoard information confuses me.
Types of Networks
Now that we understand the behaviors and the types of humans that comprise them, let’s talk about the networks they build. Like humans, there are infinite slightly different versions of these networks, but there are two you definitely care about:
The Leadership Network
This is the publicly visible network. I call this the Leadership Network because leaders in large groups are incentivized to seek, identify, and relay important information. Their job depends on the quality and the freshness of their information. To keep themselves stocked with the latest and greatest information, they build networks of humans that they trust. They also build elaborate processes, org structure, and meetings, ensuring that everyone has a good chance to learn about essential bits of information.
The Leadership Network is the backbone of communication of any large organization, but it is paired with another, which is more challenging to find and trust.
The Whisper Network
The Whisper Network is a rich tapestry of partially true information. My gut is to call this the Gossip Network, but gossip is just one of the information types that traverse this network. The Whisper Network is a semi-deliberate construction of humans who might trust each other but mostly wondering out loud what the hell is going on.
Remember the rule: humans don’t like not knowing what is happening, especially if it directly affects their professional well-being. They tap into their Whisper Network when they hear a whisper of an idea that hints at shenanigans. A collection of semi-trusted others who meet one or more of the following criteria:
- They have some professional stake in the topic. They might not be domain experts, but they can comment.
- They are known as Gossip or Amplifiers. Or both.
- They’ve provided high-quality Whisper fodder in the past.
Conducting business on the Whisper Network feels shifty because it’s designed to operate outside of standard forms of communication, but this doesn’t mean it’s entirely nefarious or full of lies. It’s a rich tapestry of partially true information, half-formed ideas, and opaquely motivated uninformed opinions. Its lack of integrity does not mean it is bereft of signal.
The Whisper Network is wholly entangled with the Leadership Network because it’s the same set of humans. Yes, information is jumping back and forth between these networks. You can talk to the same person and change networks during the conversation. I consider it a separate network because of intent. When I’m participating in the Whisper Network, it’s a different mindset. There’s a reason I’m whispering.
I participate in the Whisper network because it often serves as an early warning system. It often alerts me to the Contagion.
The Contagion. Let’s Play It Out.
Large group humans. Thousands. Multiple huge programs. Months of complex development. Millions of dollars on the line.
One key project. One person. One person who has intimate knowledge of the state of development of that critical project is slighted. How? Doesn’t matter. You’ll never know who they are and why they feel this way. They will express their displeasure with this development quietly and privately. Their only motivation at this moment is therapy by venting to trusted others.
Thing is, it’s a good vent. It’s a compelling story that can be summarized elegantly… briefly, even though it’s an opinion… a ridiculous thought. I will call the summary of this vent The Defining Thought.
The Defining Thought checks a lot of the boxes from the communication rules above. It’s the answer to a question many folks haven’t even asked themselves, but they can sense it because… they don’t like not knowing things. It’s terse, and it’s pithy, which significantly reduces transmission costs. Finally, this Defining Thought involves a critical and high visibility program which means humans who are not remotely involved in the effort eagerly amplify it across the company.
It’s around this time when you first hear this ridiculous thought. Still, you don’t understand that it’s a Defining Thought until you’ve listened to this untraceable ridiculous nonsense from five other trusted others.
See, the Contagion is not this ridiculous thought. The Contagion is your culture. A unique combination of the communication rules allowed to exist, the types of obvious and non-obvious information networks that connect your teams, and the unique set of nodes that dominate those networks.
Why is ok for this vent to be transmitted? Who thinks it’s a good idea? Who did they share it with? What were they hoping to achieve? Once the thought started gaining traction, why did receivers not source-check? Why is it ok for them to tweak this information in their favor? It’s an unknowable list of questions and answers; the answers explain why the Contagion is allowed to exist and thrive.