Zero-Gravity Thinkers

An Interview with Cynthia Barton Rabe, author of The Innovation Killer
By Vern Burkhardt
"Innovation is the application of an idea that results in a valuable improvement".

As companies or other groups become more successful they tend to become less innovative. Human beings tend to go along with the decisions of the majority in their group—the "Groupthink" phenomenon. This is one of the greatest threats to innovation that an organization faces.

"ExpertThink", a term coined by Cynthia Barton Rabe, "Groupthink on steroids". It is the tendency to make decisions based on one's own expertise, the opinions of other experts, or the directions of those in authority. The paradox of expertise is that it is needed, but experts in the same professions or industries tend to make decisions, analyse situations and evaluate ideas with a similar mindset.

But there is hope—Zero-Gravity Thinkers.

Cynthia Barton RabeCynthia Barton Rabe is the author of The Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine... and What Smart Companies are Doing about it.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): Clearly Groupthink and ExpertThink are serious aspects of human nature, as evidenced by your examples: the decision during the John F. Kennedy administration to invade Cuba (Bay of Pigs); the Enron collapse despite the prime duty of the board of directors to protect shareholders; the Challenger shuttle disaster; and the CIA conclusions about Iraq being involved in a weapons of mass destruction program. Have you found that these tendencies of human nature are widely understood?

Cynthia Barton Rabe (Cindy Rabe): Many people in business are aware of Groupthink.

The concept of Groupthink has been around for awhile. It's taught in business schools, and generally people understand it. Good managers will do things to try to avoid Groupthink or at least they'll pay lip service to try to avoid it.

It seems that Groupthink is so entrenched in human nature that it is very difficult to avoid even if you know it's there. So the example of the CIA conclusions about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq can clearly be blamed on the phenomenon of Groupthink. The interesting thing, and I think it's a great example, is the CIA is very aware of Groupthink. They have a lot of policies, guidelines and practices in place to try to help people avoid it. But the truth is when you are sitting in a room with ten other people, you have to work with these people every day, and one may be your boss, and some of them are responsible for the job performance review you are going to get next month. After awhile it becomes very difficult not to go along with the group.

So, yes, I think people are aware of Groupthink, but I also think it is so entrenched in human nature it is extremely difficult to avoid. It is influenced to a great extent by people working together in close physical proximity over a lengthy period of time.

VB: And ExpertThink?

Cindy Rabe: ExpertThink is a slightly different story because people are far less aware of it as a pitfall of innovation.

The concept of ExpertThink differs from Groupthink in that Groupthink happens in a social environment with a group of people who work closely together. ExpertThink is something that does not require physical or working space proximity. It actually extends across entire industries, across entire fields of endeavor. It is the thinking that permeates a particular industry or a particular profession.

For example, up until a few years ago ExpertThink led to the accepted view that the correct way to treat menopausal women's symptoms was with hormonal replacement therapy. It was only with further research and study that ExpertThinking was proven to be entirely wrong. There was research that suggested hormonal replacement therapy was not the best option.

ExpertThink leads to a practice that is so embedded across an industry or a profession that everyone thinks the same thing or does the same thing. Unless someone questions it at some point. Thankfully in the case of hormonal replacement therapy for menopausal women, lots of medical research happened. The ExpertThink was challenged and new findings came to light.

Unless there are questioning researchers, academics or renegade persons in the profession—unless you have that going on—ExpertThink becomes entrenched.

VB: Is it related to our tendency to defer to experts as people who must know so we don't question them?

Cindy Rabe: Absolutely. ExpertThink happens within industries as experts follow what other experts do and say. And those of us who are not experts in those fields tend to not question. We don't try to analyse or second guess because we have a healthy respect for authority. And that also tends to be a part of human nature.

VB: Especially in the medical profession?

Cindy Rabe: Oh sure. But you can go into many other professions and corporations and find it exists as well. It really cuts a huge swath across society. Everywhere you have a group of human beings working together in some capacity over time you have social bonds and hierarchies that result in Groupthink and ExpertThink.

VB: You introduce the term "Zero-Gravity Thinkers" to describe outsiders who can help a team of experts avoid the pitfalls of Groupthink and ExpertThink. Would you tell us how you learned to play this role when you worked at Intel, and also why you were so successful?

Cindy Rabe: At Intel I fell into that role because I was, as Dorothy Leonard the Harvard Business School Professor wrote in As Sparks Fly, an alien. I came to Intel with no technology background. I had a consumer goods packaging background in marketing. And I was dropped into a technology environment where engineers were revered above all others.

I was always asking odd ball questions and I always had a naïve point of view from a technology standpoint. Initially, honestly, when I first came to the company I thought I was hugely disadvantaged. I wondered how I could add value to the company since I didn't understand technology very well.

Innovation KillerBut over time it became clear I added value precisely because I wasn't an expert and because my naïve questions, my out-of-left-field questions that nobody who had a technical degree would think to ask, caused the engineers and technologists I worked with to look at problems from a very different angle. So at times we came up with solutions to problems that led to technology patents, to marketing or business-related solutions that they were not on a path to come to otherwise.

I fell into it. It was a circumstance where I found being technologically naïve was valuable. I honed it and proposed making this function an official position within the division where I was working. An idea that was successful and recognized as something that added value. It was not pre-ordained. It was just the circumstance and I decided to analyse it and determine why it was working.

Don't get me wrong, it did not always work. But it worked more often than not. That's what I found promising. And those are the things I tried to analyse and write about in the book—when did it work well, what made it work well.

VB: I assume it also required you to be a good communicator, able to break down the barriers the experts, technologists and engineers would have for a non-expert, for someone who didn't have the same educational background. And you were a new employee at Intel, without a proven track record with these experts. Gaining sufficient credibility for you to be accepted by them must have been an interesting exercise.

Cindy Rabe: It was interesting but I would say it takes two.

To be successful a Zero-Gravity Thinker, whether it's me or anyone else, one needs to be able to communicate well with the team in a very polite and collegial way in order to ask the dumb questions and get people out of their comfort zone. This has to be done without being obnoxious and without giving the impression that one has all the right answers the experts don't have. That's what it takes from the person playing the Zero-Gravity Thinker role.

On the other hand, it requires that the recipient of those services, the group bringing a Zero-Gravity Thinker in to work with them, has to be ready to collaborate with this kind of person.

In the situation at Intel where this was successful the people I worked with were incredibly open and they wanted their ideas and thoughts challenged. They didn't just pay lip service to it, they wanted it. They expected it, they craved it. And when that wasn't the case the process either wasn't successful or I spent an awful lot of time trying to break down trust-related barriers in order to be able to work with the specific experts. Over time they figured out that there was some value to the process and they became converts. It really does take both sides to make it work.

I can tell you that ninety five percent of the questions a Zero-Gravity thinker asks don't go anywhere from an innovation standpoint. It's those valuable five percent of questions that do lead to something new.

VB: A number of authors talk about "deep listening". Is that one of the key characteristics of a Zero-Gravity thinker?

Cindy Rabe: Absolutely. Listen, listen, listen. Deep listening and then playing back what you've heard.

Something I would frequently do at Intel was have some technologist explain some technology to me. It would be very complex. I would listen intently and I would try to draw simple analogies that I would say back to them to ensure I understood the core concepts.

Yes, listening is a critical part, perhaps the most critical part of being a Zero-Gravity Thinker.

VB: And probably it also encouraged people to quit using jargon and assuming everybody understood them. Rather, they would be encouraged to communicate clearly. It's like manuals for computer software and hardware; if they're written clearly it's a sign of a clear thinker compared to someone who is imprecise in their use of language. Similarly conversations at business meetings or presentations.

Cindy Rabe: Yes, jargon is another way to perpetuate ExpertThink. It is a short hand, and core concepts are not questioned. They are simply skipped over because everyone knows the jargon, and they go on to whatever it is they are trying to solve.

But sometimes if you break apart the words you can get to key issues that have not been thought of before or which should be revisited.

The key thing people should understand is that ninety to ninety five percent of the time this process doesn't bear fruit. It takes a lot of dumb questions—at least what the experts consider to be dumb questions. It takes a lot of tearing apart of jargon, and a lot of questioning ExpertThink to come across the things that are really worth tearing apart and exploring from an innovation standpoint. No one would say its easy but that's the process you need to go through to get results.

VB: Our IdeaConnection readers are interested in innovation and using collaboration to solve problems. If you were establishing a group of experts to work on a business problem, how would you go about selecting one or a few Zero-Gravity Thinkers to work with the team?

Cindy Rabe: They would have to get along with the team, be a good relationship fit, and be able to dialogue with the team. I don't mean be best of friends necessarily. But it must be someone the team can collaborate with because that is what it is all about.

Related expertise is critical. You are not looking for someone who has deep expertise in what you already know. You are looking for someone who can look at things from a very different angle. For example, if you are marketing technology products bring in a marketer with shoe experience. Do that type of cross fertilization.

Make certain you have someone who not only has related expertise but also the ability, to use a cliché, to think outside the box. Someone with renaissance tendencies so they can connect ideas in strange and different ways to help jump start creativity in the group.

Having someone who is highly creative is really important.

VB: They need to be able to think outside the box?

Cindy Rabe: Yes.

VB: What do you mean when you use the term "thinking outside the box"?

Cindy Rabe: That's an interesting question.

I think about people who can connect ideas in strange and unexpected ways that are valuable.

Somebody once said to me that they defined being imaginative or creative as being able to color outside the lines. I thought about that comment and I thought no, a monkey or a three year old can do that. It's not what I would call creative. Creativity is coloring outside the lines and creating something new and more beautiful than what the original lines had drawn.

I think the issue is being able to take old ideas, old information, combine it with new information, and come up with something that is fabulous, unexpected and different. For example, Bette Nesmith Graham, who invented liquid paper or white out, painted at night and was a secretary during the daytime. She realized that if she combined the idea of painting with some of the mistakes she was making on the typewriter, she could figure out a way to paint over her mistakes. So she made her work easier. That's thinking outside the box. It's combining two ideas in a very different way to come up with something that's very valuable.

VB: You say Zero-Gravity Thinkers should have three primary characteristics: psychological distance from the team; renaissance tendencies; and related expertise as it pertains to the challenge. And that those strong in renaissance tendencies are usually the most innovative thinkers. Why do you think that is the case?

Cindy Rabe: I think it goes back to what I already talked about. People who have renaissance tendencies have brains that work in a slightly different way and they're able to free associate more easily than other people. As a result they come up with combinations of ideas that are very different.

If you have someone with renaissance tendencies, who also has expertise in an area that is related to the problem you're trying to solve, it's a great opportunity for them to make weird connections in a way that could be very meaningful.

VB: Do they also know how to ask the right questions?

Cindy Rabe: I don't think they necessarily know how to ask the right questions. I think that's another skill that goes back to communication ability.

I have met some incredibly great renaissance thinkers who are very creative but are terrible communicators. So they can't ask those right questions. They can do it within themselves but they can't necessarily do it with other people. So I don't think they necessarily go hand in hand, but if you have someone with renaissance tendencies who's able to work collaboratively within a team, then you've got a promising situation.

VB: I suspect most people think someone who is naïve would not be a good catalyst in a team of experts working to solve a problem. But you suggest that naiveté can be an asset. Could you explain?

Cindy Rabe: I think in general people in many organizations discount the value of naiveté. It relates to human beings' reverence for authority, reverence for the expert, for our hierarchical organizations. Typically the higher you are in the hierarchy the more expertise you are perceived to have—and the less patience you have for listening to someone who is going to ask you what you will think are dumb or basic questions.

VB: We are not talking about someone playing "devil's advocate". We are talking about something very different?

Cindy Rabe: We absolutely are, yes. If you are playing devil's advocate you may already know the expert answer and be purposefully taking a different side just to generate conversation or discussion.

VB: Or using De Bono's term "putting on the black hat".

Cindy Rabe: That's right.

If someone is truly naïve they won't know they're playing devil's advocate. They have no clue. The interesting thing is when you have people come in who are naïve, and if that naiveté is viewed as an opportunity to question—to truly question your beliefs about how things should be done, or why things are done in a certain way, or what you learned in school or whatever—and the people in the organization value it enough to listen there can be huge benefits.

When I was in the early stages of writing The Innovation Killer, I had a weird graph I was trying to prepare for my work at Intel. I couldn't figure out how to do something in the graph. It was somewhat complicated but I wanted to do it. I asked the people at Intel who worked with Excel all the time whether they knew how to do it, and they said "no", they couldn't figure it out. I went home and talked to my daughter who had never used Excel before. She was a freshman in high school at the time. She didn't know anything about Excel but she was taking algebra. I explained my problem to her. I only did this, by the way, because she insisted. I was working on it and was obviously frustrated; she said "let me help you". I thought "oh brother, this is going to slow me down". I had the same response most people have to the naïve collaborator. But I took a minute and explained my problem to her. She asked me one question. Just one question. Out of that question, within a couple of minutes, I solved the problem I had been working on all day, and that no one at work had been able to help me solve. The point is that she asked the question in a way that made a light bulb go on and I figured out how to make the complicated graph I wanted to make.

VB: She didn't have the answer but as the naïve questioner she sparked something in your subconscious and you were able to solve it.

Cindy Rabe: She made me think about it in an entirely different way. In an entirely different way than any of the experts I talked to at Intel had considered.

VB: You identify five roles outsiders can play on a team. [Vern's note: They are listed at the end of the interview.] And you indicate that of these five roles, the collaborative role, especially if performed by a person with appropriate abilities, has the greatest potential for having a positive innovation impact provided there is not a need for speed. Would you please explain?

Cindy Rabe: The collaborative role is really the Zero-Gravity Thinker role, where they are dropped into a group in order to collaborate with the team to solve a problem. They're not there to teach the team how to do something. They're not there to facilitate a strategic thinking session. They're not there to share some wisdom and inform the group. They're not there to have the project handed off to them.

They're there to stimulate everyone on the team to think more innovatively, and to participate in the creation of innovative ideas. That's why it's such a powerful role. But it's a role that requires a huge commitment on the part of the organization or group bringing this person in, because it takes a lot of time and effort to work with someone who is not an expert. Working with someone who is constantly questioning slows things down. There's no doubt about that. When I took a few minutes to explain the problem I was working on with my daughter it initially slowed things down. The interesting thing is, though, I might never have solved the problem or it might have taken me another day to solve if I hadn't taken the time to explain it to her.

VB: So the question of whether it really slowed you down is easy to answer after the fact. But at the time it must have felt like it was slowing you down.

Cindy Rabe: That's right.

The issue is sometimes it may slow you down and you may not even get the answer. Other times it may temporarily slow you down but it will really speed you up overall, and be the difference between success and failure. Or a little success compared to a lot of success.

VB: You have to be committed to what some might call the process, and know the odds are high that it will pay off. Would that be fair to say?

Cindy Rabe: Yes. The odds are high. I would describe it in terms of a portfolio approach.

Let's say you have ten high profile efforts that you would like to innovate around this year. You can't innovate around everything. You may have hundreds of initiatives underway but you pick ten you really want to work on. For these ten you drop a Zero-Gravity Thinker in to assist.

And as I said it's a portfolio approach. On some of them you probably won't make much headway. On others you'll make some good headway and say "yes, that was worthwhile". And on the rest you'll have such profound success that you'll be amazed and think "wow, this is great". So the total return on investment for your time, effort and energy in working with Zero-Gravity Thinkers on all ten projects in that portfolio is enormous.

But if you look at the value one project at a time, and let's say one or two of your first projects don't go that well or the value is relatively low, it would be inappropriate to draw final conclusions based on that experience. You need to judge the whole portfolio of projects. It would be like an entrepreneur or a venture capital firm deciding not to make any more venture capital investments because one they funded failed to perform adequately. Venture capitalists invest money across a whole portfolio. The same as you do with stocks.

VB: You're looking at sharing the risk when you're viewing it on a portfolio basis.

Cindy Rabe: That's exactly right. You have to with this kind of effort at innovation because it's not an exact science. There are human beings involved. This is a way to increase the odds that the portfolio will, at the end of the day, look better than if you did not use Zero-Gravity Thinkers.

VB: I wrote "wow" in the margin when I read your comment that "where innovation is concerned, I propose that we relinquish some of our obsession with what can be exactingly measured and rely more on what makes intuitive sense". Often managers and leaders read traditional business literature and become convinced that only what gets measured gets done. Would you please explain why business leaders should heed your advice?

Cindy Rabe: It is sometimes difficult to tell precisely what caused or sparked a great idea. What made the project move from being a zero to being a ten all of a sudden.

We all want to quantify things. We want to figure out cause and effect, and be able to unerringly say "yes, X resulted in Y". I'm going to talk about it again in terms of the portfolio effect. It's very hard to say that having Joe in a group will always result in X percentage payback to the effort. The combination of Joe and Mary cannot be predicted to always result in Y value to the effort. These are human beings.

If you think about the value of a coffee break in the middle of the day, or having a birthday cake for each team member when it's their birthday, these things are hard to quantify. Yet on an intuitive level most people find these little things can and do make a big difference.

The portfolio approach to evaluating whether or not there will be a return on investment is similar—you cannot quantify all aspects.

VB: I have been keen to ask about your involvement in the development of the Energizer Bunny at Eveready Battery Company Inc. Would you tell me a bit about the process of developing this successful image?

Cindy Rabe: The Energizer Bunny was meant to be a very short term, one commercial campaign replacing another campaign that was not going very well. It was originally developed by DDB Needham, an advertising agency out of Chicago. The agency came up with the idea to do a parody of a Duracell ad. On the Duracell commercial all the toys run out of power except one—the Duracell powered toy. The interesting thing about the campaign is we didn't just do a parody. Our stuffed animal had attitude. And that's the key—he bunny's attitude. I was the junior of a four person marketing team. It was my job to argue in favor of having the bunny do a funny little twirl at the end of the commercial. Eventually we decided to move forward with both the attitude and the twirl, and the rest is history. The attitude made all the difference, made it wildly successful.

VB: Assuming I have basic creative and innovative skills, is it possible for me to increase my Innovation Quotient, which you call IQ?

Cindy Rabe: The single biggest thing you can do is exercise your mind by practicing making weird connections between things.

VB: What interesting projects are you currently working on?

Cindy Rabe: I am working with a start up film company called Mica. I'm the VP of Marketing. They were one of my clients when I was consulting and I have come on board to run their marketing.

VB: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

Cindy Rabe: It was a real pleasure. Thank you so much and I think what IdeaConnection is doing sounds absolutely wonderful and I'm going to keep an eye on you.

Cindy Rabe has incorporated a very useful ending to each chapter in The Innovation Killer—she lists three "Key Points" for that chapter. They are excellent summaries.

Following are the five roles Cindy Rabe identifies which outsiders can play on teams:

Process Roles:

  • Teach —help the team improve its ability to innovate by learning creativity skills, management practices or other skills.

  • Facilitate role—guide the team in following a process that will lead to innovative insights about a challenge

Content Roles:

  • Inform role—provide the team with opinions and insights

  • Collaborate role—participate with the team as a partner in developing innovative ideas and as a catalyst for stimulating the team to think from a different perspective

  • Do role—do what the team can't, and bring innovative new concepts in from outside

It is useful to be reminded of the possible dangers of Groupthink. The concept of ExpertThink warns us to beware of simply accepting experts' opinions as fact. It is good to question commonly held views.

Placing a naïve person, a Zero-Gravity Thinker among a group of experts, is an interesting new approach to problem solving.

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