Big companies get a bad rap. We think of them as creativity-killing machines that constantly crush the world-changing ideas of their hardworking employees. As if such internal mechanisms don’t also save us from countless bad ideas, creative darlings, and disasters-in-the-making. In fact, in my business experience, it’s nearly too scary to contemplate how many horrible ideas almost make it out the front door.
And they would have were it not for some lone dissenter who turned the tide.
Last year, anthropologist Grant McCracken proposed the idea of a C-level executive to track trends and monitor the "deep waves of culture in America and the world" in his influential book, Chief Culture Officer. A CCO is guru of cool and new to make sure the company doesn’t fall behind. This is important, but today I think companies desperately need this and more: an internal gatekeeper against bad ideas. A Chief Dissent Officer.
As we enter a high-speed, digital-driven economy, companies are under increased pressure to roll out more and more new things, to do it faster, with tighter development cycles. Online, especially with social media, we think publish first, think second. Companies that are unable to encourage dissent, who lack employees with the authority to say "Hey, let me stop and think about that" will find themselves making embarrassing blunders. Or worse.
"I guess I'd hoped that the CCO would be the CDO especially when the corporation was about to do something that was tone deaf with regard to culture, out of kilter with the moment," McCracken explained to me over email. "But it could be that the CCO becomes the champion of good ideas and the CDO becomes the enemy of bad ones, the Yeah sayer and the Nay sayer, a kind of strategic tag team. Whether they wear those Mexican wrestler masks is of course entirely up to them."
Like Gmail creator Paul Buchheit's infamous killing of bad ideas at Google by saying "Don’t be evil," it's a great example of dissent not only staving off a possible disaster, but the power that a dissenter can gain from doing so. Buchheit's maxim went on to be used as Google's official motto, and his prominence raised along with it. When I spoke with Buchheit at a Y Combinator demo a few years ago, I got the sense that he inhabits the same role at the fund—a sort of resident contrarian who could often be an influential swing vote in deciding who and who not to invest in.
It turns out successful companies have been doing this for quite some time. Harvard Business School professor Bill George explained it as follows in a 2007 case study for the Harvard Business Review.
"When I joined Medtronic (a medical-devices company) one of the things undermining its performance was conflict avoidance. To reverse that, we established a system that had a COO in charge of line operations along with a vice chairman of equal power who was responsible for quality, for being alert to any possible problems, and for raising questions about them. You need a team at the top where high contention is demanded and rewarded...You need to reward and promote the mavericks or else the organization will lose its creative edge. You try to create tension inside because the outside challenge is so great."
In other words, you need a Chief Dissent Officer.
And according to the research, this person can’t just be a figurehead. Though appointed "devil’s advocates" do seem to have the power to reduce groupthink and group bias, studies show their effectiveness diminishes over time. Authentic dissenters, who truly and passionately believe their criticisms, are crucial for promoting new ways of looking at old problems.
As F. Scott Fitzgerald once jotted down in his notebook: "No grand idea was ever born in a conference but a lot of foolish ideas have died there." This is the role of the Chief Dissent Officer, working in conjunction with your creative staff.
Let me give an example from my own experience: At American Apparel, one of the companies I am affiliated with, we practice a relatively unusual approach to creativity. Because the fashion company is vertically integrated (meaning that the sewing and cutting happen in the same building as the marketing and the shipping) everyone essentially has access to everyone else, and is encouraged to share ideas. Any employee can walk down the hall into the CEO's office and suggest a new product. Any idea can be rolled out onto the factory floor (or the photo studio) with very little investment or wait time.
As exciting as this is, the reduced friction between idea and execution also increases the danger of bad decisions. Democracies are great because they are unfiltered, but that lack of filter can be problematic, too. Sometimes what feels like a genius burst of creativity—no matter how many people agree with it—is actually just a plain stinker.
But thankfully there is an unsung hero at American Apparel, a person I have noticed who has killed off more than her fair share of these bad ideas. "Bad idea killer" is not this person's official title, but it is the role she often fills. She is never tyrannical, never authoritarian. Good ideas flow past her desk without issue. But bad ideas, once on her radar, quickly unravel through a variety of tactics: A well-placed email to the right product manager. A whisper to the CEO. A Socratic dialogue with the creator. However it’s accomplished, the result is what matters: potential crisis averted. (And when this person isn’t in the loop, the company makes mistakes).
To paraphrase the scientist Jacob Bronowski, no society or organization died from this kind of dissent, but plenty perish from conformity. Every company could use their own dedicated objectionists—confidently criticizing what others didn’t feel empowered enough to speak up about. It’s time you cultivate yours.
What are you doing to make sure that your company kills its foolish ideas before they see the light of day? Tell us about it in the comments
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and writes at RyanHoliday.net
[Image: Flickr user Bruce Denis]