Provoking Groups with Not Enough Friction
I wanna talk about a company whose name has been changed for the purposes of this, but a company that I studied the story of a few years ago, we'll call them G&G, they had a problem. They were working on expanding a product line that they had. They make all sorts of health products. And one of these health products was a Band-Aid that releases ointment into blisters, blister cushions. So the problem was that they stopped growing this line of business, they just couldn't expand the market, it was flat. And they couldn't really figure out how to invent a better blister cushion, so it was kind of like they were stuck here on this mountain. We wish there was something better out there, but we've found it. And so they kind of had ended up in this place of inertia, where there were no, there's no sort of jumble of ideas that was leading them to push forward and to find a better option for this Band-Aid. Not the world's most important problem, but an important problem. And so they hired t...
his agency called Sense Worldwide, that's lead by this guy named Brian Millar, who's one of the coolest and kookiest people I've ever met, super genius guy. He comes in and they want a focus group, they want him to lead a focus group to ask people what they think of blister bandages and blisters, and how they can kinda make a better Band-Aid, essentially. It's not Band-Aid, it's not them. But brings them in and instead of a focus group, he gets the executives, the top executive team of this company to go into his office, around a board table. Instead of a focus group, random people recruited at the mall, people who would buy these products, he brings in a troupe of dominatrices. And the executives are like what, no. When we said expand the market, we didn't mean. There's not enough dominatrices in the world to buy blister bandages to even justify your fee, that's not what we're gonna do. And he said hear me out, and then he gave all of the executives of this company sharpies. He made the dominatrices take off their shoes, and he made the executives get down on their knees and draw circles around their blisters. So turns out if you're a dominatrix, you wear awful shoes. And these are very painful and elaborate, and your feet are also inspected fairly closely by your clients. And so it turns out that a dominatrix is maybe the most extreme person that you could recruit for a focus group about blisters. And this is the philosophy of Sense Worldwide. After they brought in the dominatrices, they brought in some special forces soldiers, who if anyone has the worst blisters ever, it's someone who tromps through the desert in combat boots at 100 degree weather. So what they do is extreme focus groups, extreme brainstorming, where the inputs they bring in are not random people who would buy the product, but people who experience the most viscerally extreme version of the problem. So it's sort of like this, you have G&G on this mountain peak saying hey, I wish we could invent a better blister cushion. They bring in someone who sees the mountain clearly. They don't have a solution to the problem, but they see very clearly what's going on. And so this is not just a good, sort of cognitively diverse input to problem solving, it's also provocation. They made the executives get down on their hands and knees and draw circles around the blisters, which is kinda like doing this, pushing someone off the mountain peak and saying you need to see this. It's not comfortable, these executives does not have a great time at first. After a while it was okay. But they push them off the mountain peak and force them to reassess what they're gonna do. Once you're in the trough you have to climb up, one way or another. And so this is, I'm mixing some analogies here, but basically what happened is, it turns out if you interview dominatrices about how they deal with blisters, they will tell you about how they cut up the blister cushions to form around the different parts of their feet so they fit in their shoes and they don't look awful for their clients. If you ask special forces soldiers about blisters, they will enumerate all of the different severities of blisters you can have, and on which day the blisters do what based on how long they've had them 'cause they've been hiking around in these awful boots. But forcing the group to actually see this in person provoked them into this zone of possibility, and it turns out that together, they were able to come up with a whole line of blister cushions that expanded the market, and normal people could benefit from the solutions that they determined from these extreme inputs. So this idea of provocation is pretty interesting. You don't need a fight in order to get into the zone of possibility. Often what pushes you into the zone is this idea of provocation. Sometimes it pushes us off the mountain peak, so we can't unsee what we've now been shown, and that forces us to deal with that cognitive friction. We can either back away, say well I see it, but then, you know, you're not gonna do that. Or it forces you to move, progress forward. Sometimes the provocation is actually someone who just sees the waterfall that you don't see. Someone who can actually see that mountain that you can't see. Either way, this idea of getting into the zone of friction, often it's bringing in an outsider who can push you. And so let's talk about Picasso for a minute. Picasso, when he, I think he was around his 70s, 60s or 70s, he had the most productive painting period of his life. But you wouldn't have guessed it if you knew kind of what his daily routine was. Picasso had depression since he was a young man. It was a constant struggle, it went up and down. During this period of his life, he was very prolific, and his morning routine was pretty interesting. He would wake up and his housekeeper would bring him a coffee, and he'd lay in bed with the coffee and he'd say ugh, I'm not gonna paint today. And his lover, Francoise Gilot, I don't know if I can pronounce that right, but that was her name, who was like 20 years his junior. She would come in and she'd say oh, but Pablo, the people, they love you, they love your paintings, you must paint for us. He'd say no, I'm too depressed. No, I'm just gonna go to bed, maybe I'll die. She'd say no, no, you need to paint. Paint for me, paint for the people, you're so good. And he's like are you sure, do you really mean it? And she'd say yes, of course I mean it. Say okay, fine, and he'd roll about of bed and then he'd paint all day until sundown. And then the next morning the same thing would happen, and for years he did this. And if it was not for his lover pulling him out of bed so he could paint, he wouldn't have painted all of these paintings. His most expensive painting ever, it was the Les Femmes d'Alger series. Again, I can't pronounce. Most expensive painting ever, and that whole series came from that period when he was being kicked out of bed, provoked to go paint. Sometimes the provocation we need isn't just about seeing things, but it's actually about pushing us to do a little more. So the Russian hockey team that we talked about earlier. They had, among their secrets of what just sort of came together to make them amazing, they had these two coaches that were pretty interesting. First coach was sort of this long-time coach that helped develop this kind of ballet style of hockey. He would make them train in dance, do ninja rolls on skates, like jump off of trees, all this sort of Karate Kid stuff. And he taught them to see, in all of the world, lessons that could be applied to hockey. And he taught them to dance most of all. So when you see their style of play, it's more of a ballet, like a deadly ballet. Kinda like John Wick or something. Rather than, if you know that movie. Rather than what kind of the American and Canadian hockey players played, which was like this brutal, sort of force your way through kind of game. So there was that, this different sort of heuristic they developed collectively. But then they had this second coach that took over, who was this brutal taskmaster, and they all hated him. 'Cause he would push them, they'd do like 11 hour practices for 11 months at a time, he would not let them go home. It was kind of awful, and they hated this guy. They really bonded over their hatred for this guy, first of all. But he pushed them further than they would go. He was kind of like Francoise pushing Picasso out of bed. He pushed them further than they had thought they could go. And they had this amazing captain, the guy who had the heart attack and kept playing, who when the pushing got too extreme, he would push back. And the two of them had this amazing relationship where they would actually get in these fights and arguments and they would get into fist fights and one time Vasiliev choked the coach. And then they'd show up to practice the next day like nothing had happened, they were fine. It was not personal somehow, it was all part of this keeping the group in this tension zone without going over the cliff. So sometimes the provocation we need, someone from the outside taking over as coach and pushing us a little further. Someone from the outside pushing us out of bed. Now let's talk about juries. Turns out that if you have a jury who all agree that someone is guilty or not guilty, and then you bring in one person who, whether they believe it or not, disagrees with that verdict, that the juries will actually make better calls. They will actually reverse their decision once in a while, or they will be more sure. They will rate how sure they are of the verdict that they get, because someone has dissented in that process. They've done study, after study, after study, that groups of people who think they have the right answer, when someone comes in and just says I don't think so, causes the group to think, to cover cognitive territory that they wouldn't have before to become more sure of their answer or they actually change their answer. Couple examples of this that I like. Murder mysteries, so I guess one of the favorite things that psychologists do with group psychology is have people study murder mysteries. So they took some republicans and some democrats, people who have a lot of cognitive diversity on a lot of different kinds of issues, and they had them debate each other, but not about politics. They had them debate about murder mysteries. So what they did is they got these people and they had them read a murder mystery and say I want you to decide who you think the murderer is, and why, and then we're gonna put you in a room with someone to debate that answer. And half the time they'd say alright, you're gonna be debating a fellow democrat. The other half of the time they said you democrat are gonna be debating a republican. Even though it had nothing to do with politics or death penalty, or anything, any kind of political issue, when the republicans debated the democrats, rather than other republicans and vice versa, they came up with better solutions to the murder mystery. And they concluded, the psychologists, that just having someone who you knew thought differently than you actually provoked cognitive action that allowed you explore more territory on the mountain range. Those are my word, but that's essentially what happened. Another example of this, they had fraternity brothers tackle a murder mystery together. They'd get groups of three frat boys and put them together, say here's the murder mystery, come up with the answer. And then half way through they'd have another frat boy join. So frats are groups are groups that are supposed to be very similar, that's the point, right? Supposed to kinda be really together and think similarly. They'd have someone half way through come join, half the time it was from their frat, half the time it was from a rival frat. When the person from the rival frat came, the group would solve the mystery at a higher rate than when someone from their own frat came. And it's not that, you know, they're bringing in smarter frat boys, it was just they were bringing in different frat boys. And this became the provocation. So you can think the wheels are turning about, you know, you have a group that gets along well, they're solving problems but you're stuck. This is the best excuse to bring in someone from the outside just as an input to the process. So let's talk about democracy. The United States was set up pretty cleverly. The different branches of government are kind of like a team that runs the country, right? Team USA is sort of like the Executive branch, the Legislative branch, the Judicial branch. And this already is some pretty good, not perfect checks and balances on our process, right? Different people do different things, so we try and have different lenses on the problems that we need to solve with democracy. There's actually a fourth member of this team that I care about a lot because I'm a member of it, the free press. Very first thing that they did is they set up the ability for us to have a free press whose job is to hold these accountable. To keep the government in check. And there's kind of this famous common saying among the journalism world which is that our job is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. So those in power, whether it's government or you know, big institutions, often they get too comfortable with the way that they're doing things. Sometimes they need to see something that they don't see. Sometimes there's sort of evil going on and there's corruption, and the world needs to see what's going on. But often inside of a big organization, or a team that's been doing something for a while, they just don't know what their problems are. You can sort of harken back to the time when the NSA was actually doing illegal things, spying on people they weren't supposed to be spying on, breaking the law. Most of the government did not know this. Most of the public did not know this. Many in the NSA did not know this. And so then when Edward Snowden gave that information to the press, and the press showed the world that, it forced the government to reassess what was going on. My favorite story of this in history is my journalistic hero, her name's Nellie Bly. She was the first investigative journalist in history. She was hired by Joseph Pulitzer, who at the time when he hired her, he was kind of like the trash newspaper. It was the gossip rag, where it was a time when people bought newspapers on the street corner for a penny, and so the more outrageous the headline that the newspaper kid yelled out, the more likely you were to buy a paper. So Pulitzer's paper, the New York World, was like crazy person jumps off a bridge, and woman sets fire to her own children, and stuff like that, not awesome stuff. And a lot of it not true. And Nellie Bly shows up to his office and says I want to be a reporter, I wanna do detective journalism. And to Pulitzer's credit he says okay, in a time when, you know, we weren't letting women do that. And so the very first big story she has, she catches wind that the asylum system for mentally ill people is really screwed up. But no one's had a really good look inside, and the government is worrying about other things. The mayor of New York is building the subway at the time, he doesn't care about fixing. You know, they found a solution to getting rid of people who were insane, and they're just not dealing with it. She catches wind that this system has a lot of problems, so she gets herself committed to the asylum. And it didn't take much, she just kinda had to stare at some flies in a window at a house for women that needed a place to stay, and they locked her up. She discovers that half of the women that are locked up in the asylum have been locked up because, at the time, just disagreeing with a man was enough for them to decide you were crazy and to put you in the mental asylum. And once you were there, there were all sorts of problems. The doctors were not doing a good job, the nurses were completely unqualified, they were abusive. So she stays there for a couple weeks, then Pulitzer busts her out. She writes this ten-part expose on what happens inside of the asylum system. Shows the government what's happening inside its own system. Everyone freaks out, government puts a million dollars towards fixing this. And then they eventually get rid of asylums and started a mental hospital program. Literally changes the world because she provokes a group of people off of the mountain range. And to the credit of the founders of the country, they set up a system so that that was possible. There are protections that journalists get from being put in jail for doing this kind of things, because we know that we need this in order to help us get better together. So the thing about that as an analogy inside of your own team, setting up the structure of your team so that it is safe to dissent, it's safe to disagree, that you're actually welcoming provocation that can help you see what you don't wanna see, even when it's painful. And if you invite that, if you set it up from the beginning, it's less painful when it happens because you said it was okay. So, you know, I think we need the pushers and the whistle-blowers, and the dissenters, the provocateurs, we even need competitors and enemies to help us be the teams that we were meant to be.