In 1956 Dr. Amar Bose set out to purchase a set of stereo speakers. A professor at M.I.T., he was looking to reproduce the realism of a live performance. The speakers he bought didn’t do it. A few years later, Bose rolled out his new Bose Speakers. They were the product of a roundtable process where wounds were routine.
Bose’s story starts in the spring of 1942. The U.S. military was developing the atomic bomb and the Radiation Laboratory at M.I.T. needed more room. The school built a cheap, 250,000 square foot wooden frame structure, giving it the bland name of Building 20 and promising to tear it down after the war. The influx of post-war students on the G.I. Bill postponed those plans. Building 20 was turned into office space for an eclectic collection of disciplines, from poets to scientists, including Dr. Bose.
The building’s magic was its mishmash of disciplines pushed together yet “pushing back” on one another’s assumptions. This rarely happens in academic settings where academicians typically work in silos. It happened in Building 20. The diversity of disciplines, crammed together, played crap detector for one another. It was in this rollicking roundtable process that Bose developed his outstanding speakers. It was in Building 20 that Noam Chomsky developed his groundbreaking work on language. For decades, Building 20 was widely regarded as one of the most innovative spaces in the world – which is why it wasn’t torn down until 1988.
Push back can feel like a punch in the gut. Rollicking roundtables do occasionally hurt people’s feelings. On the left side of the roundtable, representing the functions of the brain’s left hemisphere, sit senior executives. They create products and processes. On the right, representing the right hemisphere, sit sage and devil’s advocate. The punch in the gut comes from devil’s advocates, who act as crap detectors. They question assumptions that typically go unchallenged in the left hemisphere. Senior executives can feel wounded by their punches. But these can be healthy wounds.
A wise sage once wrote: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6). Crap detectors are friends. When incorporated in a roundtable, their wounds are frequent. It can prove painful. However, research indicates that the more an individual experiences pain, the greater their capacity to endure more pain.1 (Conversely, the less pain an individual endures, the smaller their capacity to tolerate any pain.) Over time, if wounds are frequent enough, leaders feel naked without push back. Conversely, if they shun critique, they can be naked and not know it. Think The Emperors New Clothes.
Research indicates that few organizations function with wounding roundtables. Iain McGilchrist, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, contends that the Western Enlightenment’s preference for words over image leaves the left hemisphere operating on its own, with little regard for the right. The result is businesses operating with half a roundtable. When problems arise, they conduct pain-free exercises like “brainstorming.”
In 1948 Alex Osborn penned a little book, Your Creative Power. In it, he introduced the idea of “brainstorming.” The most important element of a brainstorming session was the absence of criticism and negative feedback. “But there is a problem with brainstorming,” writes Jonah Lehrer in a New Yorker article. “It doesn’t work.”2 It turns out innovation requires dissent. According to Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, “dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints.” Dissent gets people to dig below the surface of their imagination and come up with collective ideas that you don’t get with group-hug. Brainstorming is group-hug. It doesn’t allow for push back. Brainstorming actually decreases the likelihood of innovation.
Roundtables foster dissent. The optimal environment includes crap detectors with some familiarity yet not too much, so that dissent is welcomed. A second element is physical proximity. A roundtable provides both. According to Issac Kohane, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, “frequent, physical, and spontaneous interactions” with dissenters are critical to innovation. Steve Jobs understood this. In 1999, he designed the new Pixar headquarters with the building wrapped around a central atrium. The atrium featured mailboxes, meeting rooms, coffee bar, gift shop, and cafeteria – all designed to literally force people to go there and bump into colleagues.
Wounds are faithful to remind us that we are finite and fallen. No one knows it all but all of us tend to cringe at critique. This is especially true in a therapeutic culture where pain is shunned. Avoiding wounds might account for why, as a business ages, it doesn’t innovate but instead the average total return to shareholders tends to decline.3 The initial danger signs of decline are often ignored.4 In many cases, they appear to be too painful to face squarely. The solution is well documented – assign someone new from outside the team to assess a project.5 A crap detector. He or she doesn’t eliminate the possibility that an organization’s collective judgment will be biased, but including a crap detector makes biases less likely. You just have to learn to love a little pain.
1 Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants (1999).
2 Jonah Lehrer, “Groupthink” The New Yorker, January 30, 2012.
3 Richard Foster and Sarah Kaplan, Creative Destruction: Why Companies That Are Built to Last Underperform the Market – and How to Successfully Transform Them (New York: Currency, 2001)
4 John T. Horn, Dan P. Lovallo, and S. Patrick Viguerie, “Learning to let go: Making better exit decisions.” McKinsey Quarterly, May 2006.
5 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), pp. 245-254.