Playing it safe no longer gets results in the business world, especially with so many startups seeking to disrupt the status quo. But innovative thinking can be tough for those unaccustomed to stepping outside their comfort zones. Jonah Sachs, founder and CEO of Free Range Studios, has assembled an instructive collection of stories about trailblazers who took it to the next level and found success. He joined the Knowledge at Wharton show, on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111, to talk about his book: Unsafe Thinking: How to be Nimble and Bold When You Need it Most.
Knowledge at Wharton: What is unsafe thinking?
Jonah Sachs: I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I founded a creative agency when I was 23 years old. I did so much of that work when I was a kid based on gut feel, and I experienced massive growth because I was there when the internet was first beginning as a communication tool.
But when I became something of an expert in the space of storytelling on the internet, I suddenly found that some of those tools I thought that I was born with, that were natural to me, started going away. As I became more of an expert, I had more answers than questions and was getting more and more fixed in my way of thinking. As the business grew, I was also trying to enforce more rules and make it more predictable.
I got to this point where things were going well, but I could see the creativity and innovation being sapped out of the business. I started to look into whether creativity, once it starts to leave you, can be expanded, can be learned. I went into the science of it and started talking to innovators I admired. I found that creativity is not something that we are just born with; it is a product of our environment and of the message we are using.
My old way of thinking was about keeping the trains running and keeping the business going. I needed to leap into something a lot bigger and more outside of the box, and I found that there are ways to do that to save a business or start a business when you need it most.
Knowledge at Wharton: People hear the word unsafe and tend to retreat a bit. But unsafe correlates with innovation.
Sachs: What is really dangerous these days is safe thinking. If we try to repeat the patterns of the past to fall back on the predictable, to do what we know has worked for others in different situations, and always prefer incremental change to big innovation, we’re going to eventually fail. The environments that we are in are changing so quickly that if our patterns of thought and behavior aren’t changing with them, we’re just not going to be able to stay relevant.
“What is really dangerous these days is safe thinking.”
There is a natural tendency, especially under pressure, to feel a certain amount of anxiety and fear. But the innovators I spoke to who were able to break out had learned to reframe that sense of fear and anxiety as fuel for creativity. They recognized that if an idea didn’t make them nervous, it probably wasn’t going to be breakthrough, and that the moments in life when they moved towards those feelings of discomfort and unsafety were where all of the breakthroughs came from. I’m not saying that we need to always do the crazy thing, but if we’re not making ourselves uncomfortable from time to time, we’re certainly not pushing ourselves to the creative edge.
Knowledge at Wharton: At the company level, playing it safe can hurt the bottom line. At the individual level, it can hurt an employee’s progression up the corporate ladder.
Sachs: There is just not a direct and obvious path to success anymore. There is something called the hill-climbing heuristic, which is a thinking pattern that if we always take the next obvious step toward the top of the mountain, we’re going to eventually get there. That’s intuitive. But when you follow that, it leads to mediocrity time and again. If we are not trying new things along the way, doing experiments, incubating new ideas even as we march forward with business as usual, eventually that business as usual will take us to a midpoint of mediocrity. How we do the things that keep our businesses going but also take chances on the side, add a certain level of intelligent risks to our operations, is a challenge that we all face now. Luckily, there are ways to do it.
Knowledge at Wharton: How does digital affect this process?
Sachs: It certainly is accelerating the pace of disruption. It’s also making it a lot harder to have a single idea that no one else has and that you can roll out and coast on. We live in a world where there are a billion people at any given moment who are trying to come up with something new. If you have an idea, there are thousands more people who also have that idea.
Your competitive advantage is not finding something and exploiting it indefinitely. Your competitive advantage is being nimble with those ideas that you are creating, getting good feedback from the marketplace and constantly adapting as the world changes around you. The old model was, become an expert at one thing and just ride it as long as you can. Now, there is a growing understanding that expertise is a thinking trap. It is the people who are constantly updating that lens through which they see the world who are able to stay on the edge.
Knowledge at Wharton: How do you think it is changing the leadership in some companies, especially those you talked to for this book?
Sachs: I found that there was an ironic nature to companies that are really unsafe — in a good way. We think of these highly creative companies as perhaps freewheeling, out of control, not a lot of structure. Interestingly, the companies I found that were doing this best were making it safe for people to get unsafe.
A kind of Wild West environment, like we saw at Uber last year, is not something that unlocks the creativity of a team. When people are protected and understood and valued as human beings, and there is a lot of cognitive diversity on the team that is tolerated and celebrated, that is when a team gets safe enough to go out into the arena and battle it out and take risks knowing they are not going to have their heads cut off if they fail. Leaders who are being humble, who are rewarding the process and not just the results, who are finding ways to celebrate their rule-breakers, these are the teams that are getting unsafe.
For one of my favorite stories from the book, I spoke with the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, Steve Kerr. He told me that his fear as a player was that he didn’t belong in the NBA and it wasn’t okay for him to be there because he wasn’t as big and strong as the other guys. It wasn’t until he was forced to take a big three-point shot that he got over that fear.
When he took over the Warriors, he decided the first thing he needed to do was not to ramp up pressure on this excellent team that was underperforming, but to make them feel in the locker room like they were 100% safe and protected so that when they got on the court they could experiment more. That has really paid off, and I think that any leader can use that lesson to give protected spaces so that we can have innovative spaces as well.
“A kind of Wild West environment, like we saw at Uber last year, is not something that unlocks the creativity of a team.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Much of the Warriors’ success in the last few years can be attributed to what Kerr has done as leader of team. Obviously, the players have a role, but it maybe goes underappreciated how much the coach sets the environment to allow players to succeed.
Sachs: Definitely. One of the things he has done is taken the spotlight off of the star contributors and really make it about the team. He had these great performers, but they had some of the lowest number of passes per game in the league. He pointed that out to them and said, “For now we’re not going to count points and assists and rebounds. We’re just going to get into the locker room and count the number of passes that we had. And until we have enough passes, we’re not going to be successful.”
He started measuring new things. It is a small kind of change to measure something no one was measuring before, but I think that is a metaphor. You can’t just say, we celebrate creativity and innovation, we celebrate taking risks. You have to measure those things and reward them so that people understand that that is how you get ahead in the business.
Creative businesses often have people who are breaking the written and unwritten rules within the company. But the businesses that are really creative aren’t just tolerating it and looking the other way when it works, they are actually telling the story of these positive deviants who are finding workarounds and getting more efficient because they are cheating a little bit. They are celebrating them. They are not afraid that everyone is going to start breaking the rules; it’s actually a way of incentivizing creative behavior.
Knowledge at Wharton: You wrote about how CVS made the decision to stop selling tobacco products. That’s a decision that took creative, unsafe thinking because it meant a potential loss in profits.
Sachs: We often think about this in terms of entrepreneurialism and individual actors. You think of creativity, and you think about inventors. But it’s hard to figure out how this might work in a large, bureaucratic, conservative organization like a CVS.
Helena Foulkes, who is a vice president there, was on the team that was tasked with coming up with the core purpose of the organization. What they came up with was not particularly inspiring and straightforward: We need to deliver health to our communities. But she knew there was something hypocritical about that because the company was selling $2 billion worth of tobacco every single year, and that is not a way to deliver health to a community.
“If we’re not making ourselves uncomfortable from time to time, we’re not pushing ourselves to the creative edge.”
We’re all used to this situation where there’s just a disconnect in our business. We know there is something that we could be doing better, but it’s just how business works and there’s no way to change it. She was a cancer survivor and was thinking, there’s got to be something we can do. Instead of just making an appeal to the heart, she knew she could only make it happen if she could build a good business case for it.
She asked herself a really unusual question: Can we make more money by not selling tobacco? When she asked that question, a whole bunch of rather obvious information that was being buried within the company came forth. Through brand value increase and through partnerships she could make under the Affordable Care Act, there were a lot of new business opportunities that were being missed because no one wanted to question the conventional wisdom of a company. She built a team, convinced her bosses to try it, and just before she got approval, they made her head of retail. So, now she was going to take $2 billion off her own P&L, and that was really the test. Would she be willing to take that big step backward? She did it, and they signed $11 billion in new business to make up for that $2 billion they lost within the first year.
There is nothing brilliant or amazing about the idea that she had. It was that ability to break that spell of conventional thinking within the company and ask new questions that did huge things for CVS and for the communities they serve.
Knowledge at Wharton: When you get into a profitable pattern of doing business, it’s hard for a lot of executives to make a drastic shift like CVS did.
Sachs: You look at companies like Amazon and Google, and every time they roll out a product to the consumer, there is a question. Why are we doing this? What does this even mean? What is this thing? They are out ahead of even demand, and that is because they are incubating many products and recognizing that there is no standing still in business. You simply can’t.
You compare that to a company like Blockbuster, for instance. They weren’t unaware that streaming video was going to eat their lunch. But every time they sat down, they would find some incremental solution or some reason to say, we can ride this out a little longer. Those companies become blind to reality. Nokia first laughed at the flip phone and said nobody would ever want a phone that you need two hands for. Then they laughed at the smartphone, saying nobody wants to keep a computer in their pocket.
You become so attached to your way of earning money that you literally can’t see the world around you. Companies that are seeing change not as a threat to be parried, but as an opportunity for growth, are thriving now and will continue to thrive.
Knowledge at Wharton: Can I throw in Blackberry there as well? They were so hesitant to go away from their traditional style of phone because people loved it.
Sachs: Yes, there’s a trap that comes when you have something that a tribe of people love and don’t want you to move away from. There was something about that Blackberry keyboard that people really did want to keep, were attached to and the company was attached to. But your tribe of fans and your internal people at your company are never going to give you objective reality.
One of the things I talk about in the book is how important it is for creative teams to collaborate with their critics and detractors, not just their friends and fans. True cognitive diversity comes from what I call creating with the enemy. If you are willing and brave enough to get outside of your four walls and bring those people who most oppose you, you’re going to find that creative goal.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you see unsafe thinking in the political world, such as with President Trump?
Sachs: I was writing this book during the 2016 election, which gave me a lot of pause. President Trump skewed a lot of the conventional wisdom about how to run a political campaign, broke the rules in ways that people didn’t predict and found a lot of competitive advantage in doing that. In some ways, that campaign and the way he has been running the White House is very unsafe and exemplifies some of the possibilities when we break away from some unwritten assumptions that are no longer working.
But there is a part of the book that is equally important that I think he doesn’t exemplify, which is that we all have many faculties of our brain that we stop using. We start becoming invested in one or two ways of behaving. Some of us are really analytical, some of us are very driven by gut instinct, some of us move quickly, some of us are more thoughtful, but we let the other parts atrophy. This book is really arguing for moving towards those ways of thinking that you are not as comfortable with. How do you round out your cognitive abilities so that you can see the world more clearly?
I feel like Trump is very attached to this intuitive, gut level, where he doesn’t adjust very well to changing environments. It is that lack of self-reflection, I think, that ultimately is getting him in trouble and would have rounded out his unsafe thinking ability. There has been a preference lately for quick and flashy solutions, and I think we need to be getting deeper into what the country really needs. So, in the political world, I think getting unsafe might have more to do with crossing political boundaries, coming up with deeper solutions than where we are right now.
Knowledge at Wharton: Companies would love for everyone to work together seamlessly to innovate, but friction and office politics get in the way. How does that affect unsafe thinking?
“If you have an idea, there are thousands more people who also have that idea.”
Sachs: There is an ironic problem that to do innovation, to create anything of value, you need to work with other people. But other people are shown time and again to sort of depress creativity, to think in conventional ways. When you get a group together, that group-think tends to slow down the ability to be creative.
It is a problem for people who consider themselves unsafe thinkers who are caught in organizations that don’t allow them to be freewheeling and open. But I outline a lot of methods in the book where you don’t have to go straight at saying, “I want to break the rules; I want to do something crazy here,” because that will get you shot down really quickly. But there are ways to rethink, for instance, the way we do meetings and the way we brainstorm, putting more time on the ideation phase and taking a little bit away from the execution phase to get more ideas to the surface. The book is full of ideas of how you can get in there and break that kind of group consensus.
I am also finding that a lot of creative people who are within companies that are a bit stodgy are spending a lot more time in finding others who are in that same situation from other companies. They’re doing side projects, where they are ramping up innovation outside of the four walls, and then bringing it back in once it has been incubated. If you are in a company that is absolutely stifling your creativity, that is a huge problem. But I think there are lots of ways to infect a company, even if you’re not the leader, with unsafe thinking by changing the process, not just the attitude.