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    (Podcast) Channeling Intelligent Naivety & Embracing Constraint with business author, Adam Morgan

    By ZAGENO Team - 13 minutes read

    Continued... from part 1.

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    Welcome back to part two in our conversation with business author, Adam Morgan.

    In your book, eating the big fish, you arrange lessons into credos, and I would recommend everyone listening, get yourself a copy and you'll see for yourself. But the first is intelligent naivety, which suggests disruption and progress are often driven from those without specific domain expertise.

    Every time I reviewed that and I've done so many times, it always put me in mind of Lou Gerstner, who was a former CEO at Nabisco selling biscuits and cookies and came to IBM and completely turned around that company, made it a service organization. Having been a former IBMer, I can say with certainty that he is thought of in these glowing terms. 

    The community that we serve are life science companies. So we have manufacturers and suppliers, buyers, and users, and more often than not, these are scientists or those that are deeply embedded in the business of science. 

    So in your view, are there barriers to intelligent naivety, which prevent industries like life science, from benefiting from outside influences or can lay people contribute to innovation in a space that is based on just the data? 

    Let me answer that question in a slightly roundabout way. 

    So, I was really interested in the kind of controversy around the awarding of the Nobel prizes for science last year, because the furor, as I understood it. from the scientific community was this is a really old fashioned way about thinking about acknowledgment. You are giving an acknowledgement to one or two individuals, for a breakthrough in a particular field, but the reality of breakthrough actually is it is usually these days cross-disciplinary and with large groups of people. 

    So, I think the Higgs Boson paper was signed by something like 4,000 people. Now clearly, that's an extreme, but you look at the scientific community and people like professor Sir Andre Geim, who talks about the fact, he's won two Nobel prizes - both of them in fields that are not his own because there's this notion of stretching out of your specialist, discipline and learning from applying other kinds of benefits, other kinds of disciplines and learnings from other kinds of fields into your own I think is broadly recognized in science now as being important. 

    And the notion of intelligent naivety is really just to an extension of that. It's really just a way of saying, look, we all become way too focused and experienced in our category and that if you accept the premise, actually that, very often the breakthroughs are created not solely by deep understanding of our own category, but by the ability to look more broadly, then we need to, ourselves, rediscover that ability to look up and look out and learn from it.

    And at the same time, embrace those people who are newer to our discipline, even though they don't have our deep experience, even though they didn't have our years of research. Because actually they will ask intelligent, naive questions that we perhaps stopped asking years ago.  Because there might have been a good reason to stop asking them but actually there is a good reason why that should be asked now because the science has changed or the learning has changed or the capabilities of the world have changed in that kind of way. 

    Yes, I do think, there's a lot of evidence within science and the scientific community, generally that intelligent naivety is very powerful. And of course there's lots of anecdotal evidence.

    Yes, I do think, there's a lot of evidence within science and the scientific community, generally that intelligent naivety is very powerful. And of course there's lots of anecdotal evidence.

    I'm very fond of Richard Feynman... as a kind of extraordinary... has a kind of extraordinary breakthroughs. He's able to see  the wobble of the Frisbee and reach a breakthrough in physics from understanding and making that kind of comparative point. 

    So, I think the scientific world is full of examples of how intelligent naivety has contributed to breakthrough and how we, as businesses and business people, and just people interested in innovation and disruption bring that into our lives as a normal and healthy part of progress would seem to me to be fundamental. 


    There's a clever joke that needs to be written about an engineer and a scientist walking into a bar but I'll leave that for another time...

    That's a whole other podcast!


    You write and you speak about challenging something and not someone. And that fascinates me today. Our research scientists, those that are our customers, have this very big challenge about this thing, COVID-19. And it leads me to ask you, is there something in your toolbox of ideas that you rely on in crisis situations, like this... perhaps conditions that can be created for success?

    So funnily enough, yes. 

    From a slightly more recent book called A Beautiful Constraint, there's two things I found particularly useful in that kind of situation. 

    One is the notion of a propelling question. 

    So, one of the things that I spent a lot of time doing, and I clearly have worked in marketing and branding and communication and in innovation and idea generation.

    One of the things I spent a lot of my time doing in my early years was idea generation problem solving, where we would say, look, let's imagine, there are no constraints. Let's imagine we have as much budget... we have all the resources we want. Let's work out what we'd like to do with all those constraints taken out of the room and then, let's actually come back and then bring the constraints back into the room and we can do a little bit of filtering and see where we get to. And of course, what happens is you have this very fertile day with loads of ideas on the first day. And then you bring the constraints back into the room and everything just dies, almost instantly.

    What a propelling question says is, look, let's look the constraint in the eye. If you look, an awful lot of breakthroughs are driven actually by the acknowledgement of a constraint and kicking and pushing off against that constraint as an impetus to find something better.

    ...let's look the constraint in the eye. If you look, an awful lot of breakthroughs are driven actually by the acknowledgement of a constraint and kicking and pushing off against that constraint as an impetus to find something better.

    And the one thing you mustn't do is allow that constraint to reduce the level of your ambition. So, in other words, a propelling question says that sort of very high level of ambition and put the constraint into that question. And those two things together will frame what it is that we need to do.

    And if you talk to cognitive scientists that the linking of this big ambition and this significant constraint, they'll tell you that it actually stimulates your brain to operate in a completely different way. Because your brain is not used to these two things coexisting and it forces you, cognitively, to interrogate the assumptions that you've held about how you can answer this particular question for instance, or indeed how limiting that particular constraint is. 

    I'll just give you an interesting story... 

    So, I used to work on Audi in the U.S. And the CEO told me this wonderful story about where Audi was reentering Le Mans in the naughties and it had to design a race car. Le Mans, is a 24 hour race. 

    And so the chief engineer is standing up in front of his design team and saying, okay, we're going to build a car. What is the right question to ask ourselves, at this point, about what car we're going to build?

    And so a hand goes up at the front, says, how can we make it faster than everybody else? And that's of course the natural question to ask if your car in a race, that's all about, can I go faster than anybody else? 

    But the chief engineer at Audi says, let's not actually ask that question because we're a progressive company. Audi is all about being progressive; that's it's core, cultural identity and kind of sense of itself. So, a more progressive question is going to be this, he said, and this is the question we're going to answer. How can we win Le Mans with a car that is no faster than anybody else's? 

    • So that's a big ambition: win Le Mans. 
    • Constraint: car is no faster than anybody else's. 

    And if you're an engineer answering that question, you've got no immediate kind of experience, over the last kind of five or 10 years, that can answer it because you spent all your time trying to make cars go faster.

    So, in a sense, it's an uncomfortable question to deal with because your immediate experience is invalidated. But that's the question he set them. And of course, what that led them to understand was, okay, we can win Le Mans with a car that is no faster than anybody else, if we don't put into the pits is often. The thing about a long distance race is, you have to put in the pits a lot.

    Pits slow you down... if you're stationary in the pits, I can walk and overtake you, a snail could overtake you because you're not moving. So, if we have a more fuel efficient car that doesn't put into the pits as often, we can win LeMans. 

    So, they introduced diesel to long distance racing. They produce a car called the R10 TDI.  That is the first serious kind of diesel-based Le Mans car. They win Le Mans the next three years, they are one, two, three on the podium with their top three cars on the podium because that guy asked a question and put a constraint at the heart of it that forced them to rethink what they're doing. 

    To your point about COVID? I think that the answer is embrace the constraint.

    • What is the key constraint that COVID is giving us? 
    • Is it about our ability to go and talk to our customers? 
    • Is it about our ability to innovate in the right kind of ways? 
    • Is it our ability to distribute? 

    Don't know what it is, but look that constraint in the eye and then put a very significant ambition against it and use that as the framing question for how to move forward.

    And then the second part... the twin, in terms of the solution that links into that, is something I was taught by a man who was the chief technical officer of a big bakery in the UK. And he had this very simple idea, which I really liked.  He said when we're trying to solve very difficult problems, I don't allow anybody in my team having this conversation to use the words "we can't do that, because." They have to start a sentence, "we can do that, if"... "we can do that, if," and it sounds such a simple thought, that it's easy to walk past. But I find it one of the most profound insights and observations that I've come across in my working life, actually, because if you think about it, making people start the sentence "we can, if" does three key things, the first is it keeps all the energy of the conversation in this team around, how do we find a solution to this propelling question rather than allowing the energy to drift into, is this a question which can be solved? You don't allow that to be addressed. You've fix all of it and how we can find it. 

    Secondly, of course it does force you to look laterally. One of the reasons that people don't look laterally, by and large, is because they think that the leadership is going to suppress that or not approve that. And that tends to be not the case. By and large, a lot of those things get suppressed not because leadership says no, but because you're double guessing what will be bought more than what will not be bought. So, it allows you to offer lateral solutions without fear of being rejected. 

    Then third is it keeps optimism and curiosity alive in the conversation. So much of the evidence around tenacity and grit demonstrates that actually the more optimism you can bake into your team, as a leader - at the beginning, and keep in that team, as a leader, at the beginning - the more chance you will have of navigating certainly the internal road bumps and kind of corporate antibodies that come your way and getting your solution out of the door as undiluted and as intense and as robust and dynamic and exciting as you need it to be. 

    For me, in this particular world, thinking about how one uses COVID as a beneficial constraint that will stimulate breakthrough for us, framing it as a propelling question, and then using a "can if" approach to answer it. I would be starting there. 

    For me, in this particular world, thinking about how one uses COVID as a beneficial constraint that will stimulate breakthrough for us, framing it as a propelling question, and then using a "can if" approach to answer it. I would be starting there. 


    It sounds like great advice for business and life, really. 

    Yeah, I do think that how I do believe that, how we learn to build and navigate how we learn to navigate constraints, and how we learned to make constraints a stimulus for us, to rethink things for the better, rather than simply to walk in harness with them, will define yes, our success in business, but also our happiness as individuals. Certainly our children's happiness and our success as global citizens. It's going to become a fundamental life skill. 

    The Harvard Business Review sells this thing you can buy in airports... when we went to airports... called the 10 Key Lessons of Leadership, where they took the 10 most popular and influential articles about leadership published in The Harvard Business Review, but all in one handy volume. So, you could read it on your plane journey. I was asking about constraints at the time and I thought, okay, who's going to talk interestingly, about constraints in this.

    The word constraint does not appear once in that book, which is extraordinary, really. Because today, one of the primary skills of a great leader is how do I help my organization succeed through the constraints it faces, whether those constraints are of time, whether they're of distribution, whether they are, we've got to pivot into e-commerce, whatever will be faced by COVID.

    That surely is one of the key talents of a great leader, these days. And it's a kind of a curious void, I think. 


    Before we started recording, we were talking a little bit about how roles were changing. I mentioned that, with kind of a vacuum occurring in political corridors, people are looking elsewhere for guidance, for stability, oftentimes looking to their managers or their CEOs, to feel connected and reassured that everything's going to be okay.

    So, I had a question relating to this and to the challenger brand aspect of this conversation. In the world we're living in today where people feel unmoored, can adopting a challenger mentality be a blueprint for individuals, teams, and companies to put things back on track when they are feeling adrift?

    I've lived with this so long because it's been such a big part of my professional and personal life, the challenger mindset, that you would expect me to say yes. And I do. 

    It's interesting because I'm not naturally a challenger. I'm not punky. I'm not, in your face. I'm not fond of confrontation. I'm not naturally that kind of person.

    Sometimes when I'm doing challenger workshops, I do exercises where I ask people to think about breakthroughs in their personal lives that is not related to business at all . They wanted to quit smoking or they wanted to run a marathon or whatever else.

    And it always starts with them having to challenge something about their own internal mindset or their own sense of what they're capable of.  And so I do think that actually, it's a cliche, isn't it to talk about self limiting beliefs? But I do think that, in order to progress in order to move ourselves forward in the world forward, I do think it's a healthy thing to challenge ourselves about what we're capable of fairly regularly. Not in a kind of gonzo, okay, I'm going to do 600 press-ups before breakfast kind of way, but just in terms of starting to push ourselves to  challenge ourselves a bit more and being quite disciplined about that. 

    I think, as you were saying, it's not simply about going out and challenging something or somebody. It's about saying, I am going to challenge this particular thing in my culture or the world culture and to do that, I need to have a really strong sense of what I stand for and what I believe in and that understanding is usually forged by initially understanding what I reject.'s not simply about going out and challenging something or somebody. It's about saying, I am going to challenge this particular thing in my culture or the world culture...

    If you're trying to work out what your own belief system is, for instance, start by working out what it is you hate and why. I personally, I hate arrogance, I hate disrespect. Okay, so that gives me a sense of one of the things I stand for is you can start to work out, on the other hand, what you stand for, and what you champion, what you believe. And then some sense about what does it mean for me then to... what are my natural strengths... how do I amplify those? The thing about a challenger... they amplify their differences. What are my differences? How do I amplify them? 

    A few very simple dimensions of what you would naturally do in a business, as a challenger, and what you can bring to oneself actually within the work environment or indeed more broadly within the world, I think is enormously beneficial and productive and actually leads to unexpectedly exciting consequences. 

    I would say that, wouldn't I? But I do genuinely believe it. 


    Yes, I  imagine you would. I would if I were you.

    Final question and to end on a light note. Summer is starting to draw to a close but what have you been reading? What has piqued your interest?

    So, I'm trying to write another book and one of my preoccupations is in the world of marketing branding.

    We've learned a lot about what the kind of formal levers of growth are... if I spend this or if I gain this amount of distribution then that goes up. But actually one of the issues is that the vast majority of brands and marketing is just dull... it's just really boring.

    And the book is called, Let's Make This More Interesting. What I've been doing is starting to interview and look at people whose job is to make boring subjects interesting. 

    So, I've been doing a fascinating interview with some people who've made nature documentaries; talking about how nature documentaries were on the slide to such a degree in the nineties that big companies were considering disinvesting them completely and has been completely turned around by the introduction of storytelling into wildlife. So that Blue Planet Earth, effectively this very beautiful; parades of stories about the planet that we live on the sea that we live next to or in, and how that's completely changed it.

    So, I've been doing a lot of reading about what makes a joke funny. 

    I've been doing a lot of reading about things like teaching. You could argue a teacher has two primary professions, two primary capabilities. One is behavior management and the other is making what is to the 14 year old at the back, adult subject interesting. 

    So there's a teacher, in the Midwest,  who teaches polynomial equations using shaving foam. She’ll hand a Gillette to everybody, she gets them to spray their desk and she says a couple of things happen... one is they will put their phones away because they don't want to get shaving foam on their phones.  You can't be flirting with the person in seat number five because they're busy focusing on the shaving foam. I get them to remember what a polynomial equation is, and probably that exact polynomial equation for the next three months, because I've got their complete attention. So she's making an adult subject interesting.

    So I'm very struck by that and very motivated, engaged by that. So I'm reading with intent rather than reading for pleasure at the moment, but really loving it. 


    That's great. 

    We've been speaking with Adam Morgan. Adam is the principle of consultancy, eat big fish, the author of several thought provoking business titles and the host of Overthrow II, a new podcast, which I encourage listeners to check out. Links to these resources will be available in the transcription of this conversation. 

    Adam, it has been an absolute pleasure. Thank you for bringing your voice and your expertise to our community. 

    I really enjoyed it. Thanks for the invitation.

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