On Achieving Consensus


“Our life is what our thoughts make it.” M. Aurelius, 121 AD – 180 AD

Since WANdisco is a distributed computing company, you might be thinking this will be another article on the subtleties of obtaining consensus between multiple processors using the Paxos algorithm.

Almost, except without the computers.

Recently we had a kickoff summit for a new product. The core team met here in San Ramon, gathered from Belfast, Sheffield and Massachusetts.  We all have significantly different backgrounds, live in four different places, and came together for a few days to try to sort out a beefy list of major questions about integration points, requirements and architecture for the new product.

The technical chops of the group were without question, the motivation high, and the time short. It seemed clear that this was a challenge primarily of consensus.  We had to resolve our list of open questions efficiently and decisively.

And despite coming into the meeting with many questions still unresolved after long email exchanges, we did! The process was the quickest and most effective I’ve experienced in 25 years building enterprise software, and I started to wonder if WANdisco’s core technology of achieving consensus between computers was bleeding over and helping humans reach consensus as well.

It occurred to me that maybe it has something to do with the language that I overhear from the development teams. They speak constantly of “proposals”, “agreements”, “consensus”.  In my programming days, I recall using words like “cast”, “derive”, “protected”. Could the simple use of highly cooperative language have a beneficial side effect on group decision making?

Absolutely, and it’s variously described as Linguistic Relativity, Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism.  In short, it’s the theory that the language we employ affects our thoughts and subsequent actions.

Looks like we caught an example of this in action. How might the language you use in your software development process affect your ability to reach consensus on big decisions?






1 Response to “On Achieving Consensus”

  • This topic was the exact issue Frank Luntz explored in “Words That Work.”

    What is unfortunate is that he’s spent his career using this knowledge to drive political division, but his book makes the point not only how powerful words are in framing the conversation, but how often the technique can be used without us even knowing it.

    It’s nice to see the “technology” can be used for achieving good, as well. 🙂

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