The Danger of Congruence

Congruence is a word that means agreement or harmony; compatibility. An organization with congruence “gets along” and is all “rowing the same direction”.

What could be dangerous about that?

On Ryan Holiday’s recommendation, I’ve been reading a book called Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein.

(As an aside, I’m making a practice of linking to an author’s own site instead of just pointing to Amazon. Strong author presences are good for an Open Web)

Near the end of the book (Chapter 11: Learning to Drop Your Familiar Tools), David walks through stories of the Challenger explosion, wilderness fire fighters, and military parachute jumpers.

He describes situations where the way they had done things, what they were good at, got in the way of solving new problems. With the Challenger explosion, there were engineers who felt there was a problem. NASA, though, was such a data driven culture that the idea of making a decision based on qualitative versus quantitive information just wouldn’t fly.

Fire fighters are trained in specialized tools. They often identify with the tool that they use. In wilderness fire fighting situations where the only safe option is to run, numerous firefighters in the past held on to their heavy, cumbersome tools and died where they could have escaped. In a few cases they were even ordered to drop the tools, but just wouldn’t.

As humans, many of us are drawn naturally to what we know. There’s a comfort and confidence in sameness. It’s part of what’s so alluring about what David describes as “kind learning environments”, including games like Golf and Chess. Mastery is hard, but you know what to expect. You learn through repetition, through safe trial and error, and eventually you can get really good at it.

The real world, though, is what David describes as a “wicked learning environment.” Circumstances are always changing. Nothing truly repeats. What worked well for you one time isn’t guaranteed to work well the next.

A congruent organization is one that has a clear, well established way of thinking about and doing things. Odds are that way of doing things works well! It got them to where they are. Why wouldn’t it keep working?

It feels great to be aligned, to share values, to be “on the same page”. And, often, it’s an efficient and effective way to get things done.

What about when it isn’t, though? What if you can’t see the threat right in front of you? What if you can see it and just have no idea what to do about it? As uneasy as at least a few engineers at NASA felt, they didn’t see another way and just went forward.

Congruence can be dangerous.

Given our draw as humans towards congruence, how do you combat it? How do you prevent getting stuck in a way of doing things?

David suggests the idea of sending “mixed messages” through your organization. Promote a healthy degree of ambiguity. Encourage diversity of thought and action. (Another huge plus for hiring diversely)

At Automattic (where I work), we say “I know there’s no such thing as a status quo” and that we shouldn’t do something just because it’s the way it’s been done before.

That’s incredibly hard to do in practice. It’s worth working towards, though.

As I work through ideas and problems I’ve found it helpful to find tension, to gather and hold opposing views.

Now, with Range fresh on my mind, I want to take that further into my work with others, to send a few more mixed messages, and promote healthy ambiguity.

Thoughts? Send me a note or post a comment. For a few years now, I’ve hated comments. I’ve become a bit too congruent with that idea, though. Time to mix it up again, comments are enabled.