How Innovation Happens Inside the Zone of Friction
So, in this lesson, we're gonna talk about how innovation happens inside of something I call the zone of friction. And when I first started working on this theory years ago, I was calling it things like the tension zone, the friction zone, when I was work-shopping it with friends. And, first of all, those are awful. But, second of all, my friend started singing the song, "The Danger Zone," by Kenny Loggins every time this would come up. So, if that song is in your head during this section, I sincerely apologize. I wanna start with the story of Robert Fitzgerald Diggs. Robert Fitzgerald Diggs grew up with 10 siblings in 10 different government housing projects. Brooklyn, Staten Island and he grew up very poor, of course, that's how you end up in the projects. He was a very thoughtful kid, but his life was not easy. So, they moved over, and over, and over again. His last memory of his father was of his dad smashing up furniture with a hammer the night that he left his mom. And he was fri...
ends with a lot of people who got swept up in street business, in gang violence, in drugs, and all sorts of things. Robert was thoughtful and he got really into chess, and he got really into religion. He made up his own, kind of, homespun religion 'cause he decided that he liked all of them. He was Christian, and Muslim, and Taoist. Kind of had this Christiano, Muslama, Taoism thing that he invented for himself because he decided that he loved all of this and this became his escape. He'd play chess and he'd study philosophy of different religions. Now, he had all of these interests, but he also was, sort of, in this horrible life. He would come home from school after being bullied or seeing friends, literally, get shot. And, at one point, when he was sleeping on a bed with a couple of his siblings in a basement apartment projects, the sewer backed up and the sewer flooded through the window well and was like a stream going by his window. And he said, later on, that living where shit floats was an enormous source of wisdom and inspiration. You can imagine; No one deserves that kind of life, but the kind of person that can find wisdom in that is someone pretty special. So, he grew up and he got in a confrontation one day where he was driving someone home, a friend's girlfriend, and they came under fire by a gang who, then shot at them and he had a gun, and he shot back. Didn't hit anyone, but he got put on trial for attempted murder, and the prosecutor was trying to make a lesson out of him, but fairly few educational opportunities for this guy. He went to the library and he studied law, and he made his own defense. Stood up in the front of the jury and made his case for why he was innocent and why they should have mercy on him and people like him. And the headline was something like, "Jury Cries as Diggs is Acquitted." So, the jury cried. These are all white jurors, Robert was black. And some of them hugged him in tears afterwards, after hearing his story. This is a really special guy. Now after this event, he said that he got years of his life back when it flashed before his eyes that he could have potentially have ended up in prison for this, so he decided he wanted to channel his life into a positive direction that had nothing to do with the street business that was all around him. And he started going on these long, meditative walks, and he thought about all the things that he loved growing up: the chess, the religion, the kind of Islamic mathematics that he was really into, and also, his favorite genre of movie, which was kung fu, and he would rent all of the library movies about kung fu. Loved these old, crappy movies. And his favorite genre of music, which was a new genre of music coming out, called hip hop. And he decided that if he could combine all of those things together, that he could make a pretty interesting hip hop persona. Pretty interesting hip hop career. So he started making beats on his little equipment and making lyrics about all of these things that he loved. So, if you can kind of call back to what we just talked about, combining different heuristics and perspectives from these different things he loved, he found these sort of really interesting musical cocktails that he made. And there are a lot of other guys that were getting into hip hop in his neck of the woods. And he decided at some point, that he was going to, actually, combine all of them to make a rap group. He wanted it to be the greatest hip hop group of all time. He wanted to start a dynasty. He wanted to be like in kung fu, where they formed the kung fu army and they kind of spread everywhere and then, when they defeat the bad guys, then each of them can start their own kingdoms. That was his plan. So he got nine rappers from the projects from different rival gangs, from different rival projects and he brought them all to the table, basically, and he said, "I'll make you a deal. I'll make you number one together, if you give me five years. Work with me, go with me on my plan to combine all these things and make a hip hop group. And if you do this, we'll get to number one and then, afterwards, I'll help you with your solo career to get to number one. And these guys that he brought together, they all had very different, you know, on the surface, you might say they're not very diverse group. They're all young, black, alpha males who grew up in the projects, who had gang affiliations, but they were all very different below the surface. They went with rival gangs. Some of them weren't in gangs. They were from different projects, which was a big deal. They had very different styles of rap music that they had been sort of all developing in their homespun style. You know, one was sort of this gritty, braggy guy. One was more, he was really into cooking metaphors. One was more sort of emotional and sentimental. One was like really, really fast. And this sounds like maybe, you know, a potential recipe for food poisoning when you put it all together, but he brought them all to the studio and he said, "I'm gonna make the beats and then you guys are gonna rap, and we're gonna make a record. We're gonna change the world." So they showed up to the studio and then they nearly killed each other. It turns out that they were really different. They didn't like each other. Some of them were really suspicious of each other. They brought guns to the recording studio. This is exactly what he wanted to avoid and so what he did was something interesting. He recognized maybe just naturally, maybe just because of his experiences, that there was potential in this friction between them. There was potential in their differences. Just like the kung fu thing and the chess thing could combine to make interesting lyrics, he thought he could combine these people to be interesting. So while they were suspicious of each other, he channeled their suspicion and aggression into the music. He said, "There's a catch with this thing. I'm gonna make the beats, but you're gonna have to compete to get onto the songs." So he would play the beat and they would each bring their best material every time they would go to a session, and they would rap on the microphone. Whichever one was best, he picked and that went on the song or that segment of the song. And in doing this, instead of fighting each other, they kind of fought to elevate the music and they released their first record. It was a single that actually had eight of them on the single in different sort of verses that they all competed for. And there were some guys that actually didn't make it into the group because they didn't win the competition. And they sold that single out of the back of trunks, and then they recorded a full-length record, and they paid for studio time in quarters. One of the guys shoplifted cans of food to feed Robert while he was making the record. And they came out with the record and, at first, no one cared. And then, some DJ played one of the songs on the radio and they got excited. And then suddenly, they blew up. And they became the most influential hip hop group of all time, just like he predicted. This was the Wu-Tang Clan. The Wu-Tang Clan came from this amazingly humble person who understood cognitive diversity, but also, because they harnessed the friction between their different methods in order to make something greater, this blew people's minds. They did all sorts of things. It's a meta-analogy of combining different ingredients over and over and over again. They all learned to do this. And when you look at the dynamic of these guys over the years, they were very public about their arguments, and their fights, and their beef with each other. If you Google "Wu-Tang Clan beef," there's an enormous amount of shit-talking to Rolling Stone, and MTV, and whatever between them, but they always say something interesting. They always say, "I would do anything for my brothers. We're a family." And then, they'd say, "I ain't doing that" and, you know, "He did this and I'm pissed." And, "I'm not going on this tour." But they would always come back together to make that next record. Something really interesting and special about this, and years after, they went to number one, and he started producing their solo records, and they kept coming back for more. Robert Diggs went to the real Shaolin in China and to the mountain range that sort of inspired him in the kung fu movies, to actually name the group the Wu-Tang Clan, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang was the name of the thing. And he saw mountain peaks in the shape of a W, nine mountain peaks, a mountain range that he said he saw sort of the symbolism in that; That the name that he chose for this group of guys that did not have any business working together, nine of them and nine peaks, and forming the shape of a W, he saw something spiritual in that and a lesson in that. And he said that all of the conflict and all of the friction that they had, what it was is it was sharpening their blades. He says, "When steel strikes steel, both blades get sharper." So that was his philosophy and it sounds kind of crazy. It sounds like not what you'd want in a working environment, constant arguments and suspicion. They grew to be not suspicious of each other, but they did not stop fighting. And this is how we got the greatest hip hop group in history, it's also how we got hip hop itself. So the history of hip hop is pretty interesting. Basically, in a nut shell, how it started, and I love this story, I think especially because I grew up in Idaho listening to country music and punk rock, I didn't know how to pronounce hip hop names when I moved to New York. Robert Fitzgerald Diggs became known as the RZA, that was his hip hop name. Super famous, he makes movies now. He's incredible. When I first went to try and interview him, I called him R-Z-A because I didn't know anything about hip hop. I didn't know why Notorious B.I.G. was so notorious. We didn't know about him in southeast Idaho, so I love the story of hip hop because I was so fresh to it. When I was in my 20s and learning about this, when I got to New York, how we got hip hop goes something like this: DJs starting throwing this party in the south Bronx that was sort of a clever type of party where they would have a big dance hall and on one side of the dance hall is one DJ, on the other side, was another DJ. And the party, the game, was the DJs were trying to drag the party to their side of the dance hall with better music. So every Friday, everyone showed up and the DJs would come prepared with unique songs and unique records that they would play to try and get the party to go here and here. And, you know, the better that went, the more people showed up, the more money they could charge. So it was this cool thing, started doing, and they started having Masters of Ceremonies, so the guy on the microphone that announces the DJ that's coming up or the song that's coming up, and they would start to sort of get involved in this party. So at first, they'd say, "Hey, come over to this side. My DJ's gonna play this awesome track," but then they started getting into it and trying to hype up the crowd. So they would do these like party couplets, like, "Put your hands in the air, y'all." No one judge me, please, who's watching this. Just remember, Idaho. This guy who was, kind of the one that everyone loved the most, he was the best at these sort of party couplets. His name was Busy Bee. He gets up and does his thing and he goes, "Ba-wit-da-ba da-bang-da-bang diggy-diddy, come on, y'all, say hey!" So he's doing that and then, you know, everyone's having a good time and then the other guy, his name is Kool Moe Dee, instead of doing the same thing, you know, these sort of fun party rhymes and saying like, "Come over here and dance to this song," he says this, "Hold on, Busy Bee, I don't mean to be bold, but put that ba-diddy-ba bullshit on hold." And there was like a record scratch, like "errp," and everyone was like, "What?" And then he goes for five minutes with this, essentially poetry, insulting Busy Bee, who was everyone's favorite, and it was so clever and so hilarious that everyone was, I mean, it was the best night of this party that they'd had in forever, and, of course, Busy Bee is like, "What just happened?" So next week, he shows up with some more material and this party turns into a battle of lyrics, a battle of, you know, in some cases insults, but trying to outwit each other. So this battle of music turns into a battle of wits. Eventually, also turns into a battle of dance where people are competing to out-maneuver each other and it was all in service of the party. It was all to get more people to show up so they could charge more and to have fun. And you hear interviews with these guys and they say, you know, it wasn't really personal. You just didn't show up the next week, once you got beat, with the same material, you know? You were being pushed by each other to do stuff that was better to the point that the DJs started hacking their equipment, so there's no such thing as a fader switch, which is basically you turn the volume down on one record and turn it up on the other so you can blend records seamlessly. Guy named Grand Master Flash soldered one onto his record players so that he could do that and when he did that, it blew everyone's minds. And when they started having electronic music so they could play little snippets of other songs, samples, you know computers were not that good, they didn't have much memory, so DJs would crack open their memory cards and add more memory. They hacked in more equipment. And so this whole party, competition thing actually led to innovation that affected the computer industry, that turned into hip hop, that then correspond to whole bunch of genres of music from R&B to gangster rap to whatever the hell dubstep is and all of that came out of this competition, this friction between these people who were trying to do something that, inadvertently, turned into this amazing laboratory for innovation. This is what Robert Diggs, the RZA, did with the Wu-Tang Clan, just in micro. His little team of nine people, who were all very different underneath the surface, he harnessed the friction between them to create new kinds of music and music that has, literally, changed the world and inspired other musicians for years and years and years. So the analogy I like to use of this kind of dynamic, when you have the ingredients and you want the team to push further than anyone would do on their own, it's sort of like a rubber band. Here on this chart, you have potential energy, the higher, the more potential energy. Here, you have tension along this axis. So a rubber band, if it's laying limp, it has no potential energy. It's just sitting there, but if you stretch the rubber band, it has a lot of potential energy. You could shoot it across the room and the more you stretch it, the more energy it has. At a certain point, the rubber band will snap and all of the energy goes away. It's inert again, but in this kind of gray area of tension, not too much, but not nothing, is something I call "The Zone." Insert Kenny Loggins, ♪ Danger zone ♪ So this idea here is basically where innovation happens. Innovation happens underneath that gray part of the curve where there's tension between ideas, between perspectives, between heuristics and you're actually using that to move forward. So this, just as an aside, this is why immigrant cities tend to have more patents than cities that have fewer immigrants. You have people coming in from different places with different perspectives and heuristics, and they bump against each other and they might have some conflict. They certainly have more fear in those cities. They don't actually, fun fact, have more crime, they just have more fear of crime, but in those cities, statistics show, cities with lots of immigrants produce more patents. People are coming up with ideas that no one has come up with before 'cause you have different people bumping against each other, but they're tense, those places tend to be more tense. So underneath this curve is this zone of possibility where innovation happens and our goal, when we're working with teams, when we're leading a team, is not to, despite what we've been taught, to try and make a team that has complete harmony, that is completely unified in the way that they think. It's not to gather up people who are different, if we are on board with that idea, and then put them here where there's no tension. It's to actually try and push them as far over into "The Zone" as we can, but then also not let it boil over into destruction. Think about the history of hip hop. There was a point where that party no longer was fun for some people, where there was actual, real beef that got personal. You know, the whole east versus west coast hip hop thing that ultimately led to the murders of Biggie and Tu-Pac, and other people got seriously harmed. That was not good. That was not about elevating the party, that was about destroying someone else. That was when the tension got so high that it turned into something really ugly and the whole music community had to step back and say, "What are we doing? Where did we go wrong?" The very thing that led to the music being great, also led to people dying.
Shane Snow is an award-winning journalist, celebrated entrepreneur, and the bestselling author of Smartcuts and the forthcoming DREAM TEAMS (June 2018), as well as the co-author of The Storytelling Edge.