The weeks leading up to Twitter’s announcement that it accepted Elon Musk’s buyout offer of $44 billion were a study in corporate drama and human behavior. They also provided an aperture into the sexy topic of organizational design.
The questions that Elon Musk originally posed to Twitter were actually helpful and interesting. His critique that Twitter was stagnant and needed an overhaul was a fair observation. His suggestion that perhaps Twitter should engage in an open-source model was intriguing. Such opinions can help to catalyze change in an organization. But when they began to instigate rather than provoke, it became problematic, even a bit nefarious in tone. Already there are leaked reports that Twitter employees are expressing on the internal Slack channel that they are “freaked out” about his opinions on free speech.
Every organization needs a provocateur. But not every organization is intentional about building one into the fabric of how they work. And there is a difference between being a provocateur and a troll—which in a very meta way, is what Musk began to do to Twitter, on the Twitter platform.
One of the places I have seen having an internal provocateur work well is at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. The function of their Studio is to pose helpful questions and collaboratively translate the work of the research scientists and aerospace engineers. This outfit is made up of social scientists such as anthropologists and sociologists; visual artists; and designers.
For example, the Orbit project is a sound experience that The Studio produced to allow anyone to listen to NASA’s satellite movement: “By pairing the trajectory data of each spacecraft to artistically created sounds, you can listen to spacecraft move across the sky much like you hear a plane passing over your head as they pass across the sky above you.”
A provocateur in your organization should drive curiosity, collaboration, and community.
A lot of us have been question-shamed in our past either in a learning environment, or early on in our careers. But you must continue to dare to raise your hand and ask a question. That’s because, as Warren Berger author of A More Beautiful Question remind us, asking questions is a way of thinking. If you want to shift the way your organization is designed, you must compose your teams of people who are not afraid to ask questions. To do this you must model the behavior of self-reflexive curiosity. For example, instead of only welcoming questions from your team, share the questions that you have been asking yourself about a particular direction on a project. That transparency will shake off the fear others may have about raising questions on the subject.
When Jerry Hirshberg was head of design at Nissan he coined the term creative abrasion. It’s another way of saying cognitive diversity that ensures teams consist of people with different viewpoints, training and experiences. Hirshberg intentionally invited people who were not designers— colleagues from the finance, sales or manufacturing teams—into design challenges. In this way he sparked lateral thinking, the ability to learn from adjacent sectors. Creative abrasion sparks constructive collaboration. Many of us avoid collaborating because we assume we can do things a lot faster by ourselves. But it is only through practicing curiosity that collaboration becomes easier, and we welcome new perspectives.
It’s likely that your organization consists of tribes. Sometimes those tribes appear as silos, but often they are a cross-pollination of various identities, for example, junior level colleagues, support staff, or ethnic affinity groups. Tribes are important because they ground us and forge identity. But community needs tribes to coalesce. And once you have designed mechanisms to forge community (see points 1 and 2 above), then you can withstand the temporary upset that a provocative question or action can stimulate. One way to do this is to break down silos by fostering cross-training and multi-disciplinary teams. I saw this first hand when I worked in fashion sourcing. Factories that were designed around modular teams versus linear production lines where individuals were only responsible for one operation (ex: attach a collar piece to a neckline) were not only more efficient, they had vibrant community.So don’t be afraid of provocation. It will evolve your business model. Just be sure that you allow curiosity, collaboration, and community to prevail.
Natalie Nixon, PhD is a creativity strategist, global keynote speaker, the author of the award-winning The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation and Intuition at Work, and the president of Figure 8 Thinking.