In this video from The Motley Fool, analyst Kristine Harjes sits down with author, speaker, and entrepreneur Jonah Sachs to discuss some of the major lessons and takeaways from his newest book: Unsafe Thinking.
Inspired by his own experience starting a creative agency known for some of the world's first viral marketing videos, Jonah shares stories from his extensive interviews and research into how unconventional thinking can fuel success. From the NBA's Golden State Warriors to Silicon Valley and the leading retail pharmacy, find out how discomfort is often the key to growth and learning.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on Aug. 7, 2018.
Kristine Harjes: Well, hello everyone, thank you for coming! It's my pleasure to introduce Jonah Sachs who is the co-founder of Free Range Studios, a brands and innovation company which pioneered some of the first successful internet social change campaigns. He's also the author of, Winning the Story Wars. His latest book, Unsafe Thinking, reveals a path to higher performance and creativity for anyone that's ready to step outside of their comfort zone.
Jonah, welcome to The Fool!
Jonah Sachs: Thanks for having me! It's good to be here!
Harjes: To start us off. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what inspired Unsafe Thinking and what led you to decide to actually write this book?
Sachs: Yeah, so back in 1999, I started an internet company basically, to explore this new tool that was coming out, which I thought was going to let anybody share whatever information they wanted, and we wouldn't have to just sit there on our sofas consuming whatever the media was sending our way. And I figured at that time that people would be more interested in sharing messages that they're passionate about.
So, you'd rather share, Save the Whales, than buy this cheeseburger. And that maybe social campaigns could actually get this advantage, so we started making these crazy viral videos, these short cartoons. We were getting 40 million views in the years before YouTube even existed. And it was super fun. I was building this creative agency around it and was thinking, "OK I'm really changing the world. This is great!"
But, as the company grew and we got to be about 40 people I started getting much more interested in scaling, and in predictability, and enforcing rules. I wrote a book and became an expert on storytelling and started, just having all these answers and very few questions. And, I could tell that the world of marketing was changing so fast, and we weren't really changing and growing with it.
We were just doing the same old thing again, and again. But, every day I'd come to work and I was like, "I'm going to do something different today." But there was no time. There was too much pressure. Everyone was counting on predictability. And I could tell we were going to go over a cliff. But I couldn't figure out how to change.
Unfortunately that led me to have to go out and have like a hundred conversations with people who were much easy ... that came a lot easier to them, to me and started gathering up. What do you do when what you're doing is no longer working? How do you actually enact change? How do you see a changing world as an opportunity rather than a threat?
And in learning all of that stuff and reading decades of science I came up with Unsafe Thinking, this idea of how do you actually change, and I was able to finally change myself. Change my company and then eventually sell my company when I realized that the change that I desired was even more, so yeah, that's where I came from.
Harjes: So Unsafe Thinking sounds like something I should be afraid of. So why exactly should you lean into unsafe thinking?
Sachs: Yeah, so the idea is that we don't want to be taking risks at all times, just taking on the craziest possible ideas. Breaking things for the sake of breaking them. The idea more is that, in a world that's constantly changing, if we're not changing with it, if we're not challenging ourselves to grow and do things that are uncomfortable, we're soon going to be left behind. And actually the most dangerous thing is staying static and pretending that change is not upon us.
What I talk about in the book is ways that we as individuals and companies can really cultivate intelligent risk taking. Can push ourselves to use the parts of our minds and our cultures that we normally don't want to step into, and basically how we really get comfortable with being uncomfortable is seeing that as our growth edge as a new kind of technology for constant growth and learning.
And so, yeah, there's a lot of stories in here of people who've done some really crazy stuff, like a college president who dropped his pants in front of rioting students to get them to quiet down and eventually became the mayor of Bogota based on that. I'm not suggesting that we do that every day, but I am saying that non-obvious paths and risks can often lead to openings that staying on the same old tried and true, we know will not lead us to.
Harjes: I love the range of different examples that you have in the book and perhaps not surprisingly the stories are all told so well, that story about the mayor of Bogota and truly there are anecdotes told from so many different disciplines. You've got basketball coaches, you have doctors, it's truly a modge-podge of different creative and brilliant minds and that leads me to wonder, what was the most surprising interview that you had?
Sachs: Yeah I guess, you mention a basketball coach, I might go to that one. I spoke to Steve Kerr, who's the coach of the Golden State Warriors, in my hometown, is beloved, maybe he's not out here. But I wanted ... I was watching the team succeed so much over the last four or five years, and they play such a creative style of basketball where they are breaking rules and taking chances and having a lot of fun out there and I wanted to find out, how did he bring that to the team.
So I expected that he was going to have some basketball knowledge for me but what he came up with, what he told me right away was a story about himself which was that when he came up into the league he was this skinny guy. He was a great three-point shooter but he thought he didn't belong in the league at all. He thought he was an imposter basically. So he would always pass up the big shot when it came to him.
And that kind of worked because he had Michael Jordan over here, Scottie Pippen over here so it always kind of made sense to ditch the ball. But one day, Michael Jordan had the flu and they were in game six of the finals and so he got the ball, he knew he had to shoot it, he shot it, they won and he realized he had wasted so much time and energy feeling like he didn't belong.
And when he stepped into the locker room with the Warriors he said, "I'm never gonna let these players feel this way." My first job is not to teach them any new skills or any new strategy, but to make sure that the pressure in this team is off of them. That they feel safe enough to take big risks out on the court.
And he showed the difference between sort of, the locker room, where everyone is valued as a human being, everyone is shown a kind of family type of environment. Where they get to know each other and protect each other and then the court where risk and action is valued. I imagine it's kind of similar to the closer you guys have here where you know, the outward face of The Fool is kind of rebellious and crazy and fun but inside there's a sense of real care for the community and a real sense of psychological safety.
So what Kerr taught me which I found very confusing at first, was that in order to help people get unsafe, you've got to make them feel safe first. And a crazy cowboy culture, like an Uber, doesn't actually create the unsafe thinking that we want. That's not where it comes from.
Harjes: So when you think about the culture of an organization, how exactly do you foster that sense of safety that leads to the unsafe thinking?
Sachs: There's all kinds of ways that we can do it. I'll mention a few. The book is kind of full of different things that leaders can do. One of them is, what are we incentivizing? If we're always incentivizing results and always crediting individuals with having a great idea and that's how you get raises and you advance in the company, people will take less and less risks. And they'll try and kind of fake results.
I tell a story of the sciences in which 60% of papers that get negative results, studies that don't find anything, get buried. People pretend they never happened. And that's terrible for science. We're doing all these studies, finding out there's not answer there and then throwing them away so other people have to repeat the study.
That's happening in companies all the time. People are doing experiments and are afraid to say anything about it and then we keep repeating the same stupid experiment again and again. When we reward people for taking intelligent risks, when we reward teams, not just individuals, that reach success. There's some great studies on how people who break the rules, and do it out in the open, when those stories are told and they're rewarded for actual rule breaking, the rules of the company get smarter and better.
When leaders speak last in a meeting. When a leader will come into a meeting and speak first and set the tone, what you're going to get is the same old thinking. It's called, shared information bias. Where everyone just feels good repeating what the leader just said. But when a leader draws information from the edges, from those lower status individuals in a group, creativity bursts forth.
So yeah I had a lot to learn actually as a leader from all of this that I heard about not being an MVP of your group when you're the leader, but bringing out the creative MVPs around you.
Harjes: Yeah, it seems like a lot the leaders can do in their team meetings to take a step back and use their opening lines to set up an environment where people are actually welcomed to do that exact type of rule breaking and then shut their mouths and listen and hear what everybody else has to say before speaking themselves.
Sachs: Yeah, there's this fascinating thing that happens where, let's say 10 people get together in a room, and two of those people have some unique information that no one else has and then all the other information everyone already shares. This is really common. Well, what's the point of the meeting? Right, it's to get those two pieces of information that only a couple of people have, that's why you get together.
But what happens psychologically is when the leader speaks, an actual amnesia takes place where the person with the outlying information forgets that they even have it. And some fascinating studies show that it's important that everybody writes down what they think they know, and what they think they know that's unique and even if they are afraid to put it forward, to pass it to the person to the left so it comes out.
Simple technologies like that, which make it safe to say the things that people don't want to hear. There's prediction markets that I found fascinating where if a leader asks, "How are we doing in this project?" Everyone's going to give the thumbs up because no one wants to give the thumbs down. But give them a chance, behind the scenes, to actually bet on the likelihood of it happening, and you'll get a very good sense of whether that thing is going to happen or not. The truth comes forward.
So all these different ways that we can break through that safety seeking that holds us back, and makes us think we're doing great when we're actually failing, it's usually important.
Harjes: I'd love to dive a little bit deeper into those prediction markets just because you're in a room full of people that are interested in investing. So how exactly does that work, and how do you avoid any sort of negative motivation if you're say betting against the success of an idea?
Sachs: Yeah, well you have to make these prediction markets not make or break for someone's career. If people are putting a $100,000 against the prediction markets and that's more important than launching the new product that's going to be a huge problem. But if you give everybody a $100 for instance, to bet, that's not going to create a negative incentive for doing your work well. But it gives people a chance to just sort of, even a point system can work as well, it gives people a chance to actually think in a new way.
Not what they would like to see happen but what they truly believe will happen. And as the value of the shares in the future go up and down, people can start to see, "Oh, there's a flaw here. This is where things are not working. I'm going to both invest in it actually working and figure out how to fix that flaw." And now prediction markets are free software that you can just download and, or just do online. You don't have to set up anything fancy.
Harjes: Yeah, it's a very cool concept. It really gets at the root of why it's important to have divergent thinking within a group of people. Something that you spend a lot of time writing about is how it's actually a very good thing to be disagreeable.
Sachs: Yeah, so we all want these nice cultures and it's very important that people, as I said, feel safe at work. They feel embraced. They feel valued. But there's a difference between respect and niceness. And nice cultures tend to actually discriminate against people who are not of high status in a group. Often, women, minorities, in an organization and creates this sort of mono-culture where people are sort of afraid of upsetting each other.
It keeps everybody agreeing basically. And agreeableness has been found to be one of the highest predictors of non-creativity. So they've done studies of teachers for instance, and they asked them how important is it to teach creativity to your students. And they say it's the No. 1 most important thing we can do. And then they'll say, "Who's your favorite student?" And they will always identify a non-creative student as their favorite, because creative people tend to be less agreeable.
And so when there's a subtle culture of agreeableness being important, creativity starts to shrink. And so I talk about lots of different ways to what I talk about game-ified descent. To force people to fight it out really hard. Kind of like Steve Kerr has them in the arena and then come back into a safe environment outside of the brainstorming or meeting session.
Things like red teams where you put an idea out there, and it's the job of some of your colleagues to rip it apart in every way possible without ripping you apart, is a great practice for instance for being honest with each other. And killing ideas before they get out into the market, and we learn the hard lesson that way.
Harjes: Absolutely. So, when you think about some implications for leadership and encouraging people to speak up and to actually listen to the views of people who might have divergent opinions. How exactly can you encourage avoiding bias and leaning on intuition without falling into the trap of biased decision making?
Sachs: There's a lot of work that I did on intuition which is kind of well studied source of our genius. We do all this pattern matching in the background, and we think we know because 80% of what comes in our brains, we're not really noticing but all this pattern matching is going in the background so suddenly we'll realize something and that can be the source of our genius. It can also hide all kinds of biases that we have no idea we're aware of.
So, I tell the story in the book, Silicon Valley investors have been asked and really tracked, "How do you make your investments?" And they will tell you time after time its intuition. I'll look at the business plan, it doesn't matter. I want to meet the entrepreneur. I just know. And they'll go on and on about it. But they invest $34 in every male entrepreneur, for every female entrepreneur they give a dollar too.
And so their intuition is telling them that women can't run businesses. The reality is that women tend to do better when they run start-ups than men. So this intuition is actually just hiding this biased approach to investing and wasting tons of money. Leaving tons of money on the table, even when they're confronted with this reality, they do very little to change it. So what are the ways that they can overcome this sort of false biased intuition?
One of the prescriptions that's been now trying in Silicon Valley, simply means bringing in different people into the decision making process. It turns out that these men are unable to change, even after committing to it, many of them. So bringing more women onto the team, changes everything. Another thing is exposing yourself to situations that are really counter to the patterns that you see everyday. Doing things that you're bad at, actually creates more creativity.
Getting out of that sense that you're an expert, really helps opening up learning. There's a study of 200 experts over 20 years they made 10,000 predictions about the future. They were worse than dart throwing monkeys at figuring out what was going to happen, you know? And why was that? Well, the more that they appeared on TV and the more that they had esteem and the more that they wrote for major newspapers, the worst that they were.
And that's because they started to get entrenched in this idea that the world works this way and my ego attached to it working that way. And that feels like intuition. "Oh, I just know." But if you think you just know and you're no longer exposing yourself to new ideas and to new stimulus, then you are reaching this point at which you become worse than a blindfolded person at making predictions. So we need to constantly educate that intuition by exposing ourselves to new possibilities, new ideas by humbling ourselves.
I tell this story in the book of this guy Vineet Nayar, who took over 56,000 person company that was facing terrible threats, as an outsourcing company in India. Huge threats coming in because Microsoft and Apple were getting into the space and they wanted him to fix the business. He gets up there, and in India, a lot of CEOs are seen almost as emperors on high, you know he's described, they expect me to have all the answers. I didn't know the answers.
So instead of giving a PowerPoint presentation, he gets up and turns on some Bollywood music and he starts to dance and he's terrible and he's sweating and falling apart and everyone on the audience starts laughing at him and then when he's done, he steps up and says, I don't have the answers. I want to know from you guys on the front line what we should do. And he said that that experience helped them triple the revenues of the company over the next three years because not only did he make himself more human to his team, but he got out of that trap of thinking that he actually knew.
So whenever you go into a situation with that confidence that you already know, you are risking that kind of expert blindness that's been really well studied and can be overcome, if we kind of question our intuition and question our expertise, thinking of ourselves more as explorers, than as experts if we can.
Harjes: And so it turns out that if you have that mindset of an explorer and you can really come to embrace the discomfort that comes with being in that uncharted territory, you actually can make a lot better decisions. So the first section of your book is all about courage. So how exactly do people harness these feelings of discomfort and anxiety and fear into something that they can leverage into fuel for their creativity?
Sachs: Yes. So, when I started researching the book, I was really influenced by that old Apple think different ad. I don't know if you guys remember. But it says here's the crazy ones, the people basically who changed the world because they know no other way. And I was thinking, "Oh, man, I can barely change myself and I'm just not one of those crazy ones." And then I looked into the story of one of the crazy ones because I was so intrigued by this idea and kind of depressed by it.
And I looked at the story of Gandhi because he was one of the first to appear in that ad and Gandhi, it turns out, was not really one of the crazy ones at all. He's one of the biggest world changers, obviously in the 20th century. But he was so shy that he couldn't even open his mouth as a young lawyer in court. He couldn't even utter a word for fear that he would be discovered as a fraud. He tried to speak to the London Vegetarian Society, couldn't utter a word, got laughed out of London, got laughed out of India, went to South Africa.
And in South Africa he also tried to hide from his fears by working behind the scenes for a law firm. And then one day he's crossing the mountains across central South Africa and he gets kicked off a train for sitting in a white man's seat. And he's alone in the platform, freezing. And he realizes that he has always run from his fears. And every time he has, his life has gotten worse. And his fears have gotten bigger. And so he calls this the most creative incidents of his life.
He says, "From now on, things that make me nervous, I'm going to step toward, rather than away, because it's just not working to stay this way." And what he had hit upon and what actually really worked for him, obviously in huge ways. What do you had hit upon is what now psychologists call, cognitive reframing. Where we can't stop ourselves from feeling the fear of the unknown. And in fact trying to do that, trying to like harden yourself against those feelings tends to only make them worse.
But if we reframe those feelings and say, "Hey, nothing that I've ever done that's been creative has ever happened without me feeling a little bit of fear and no good idea ever comes along that makes everyone feel comfortable." If we start thinking of fear as fuel for creativity, we can start approaching it in a different way. You know, leaders who can teach their teams like we're not leaving this room until we come up with an idea that makes us a little bit uncomfortable and we don't have to do that idea. But we're not going to just consider four ideas that we all feel are safe.
I'm not going to live my life only staying in the zone of things that I know, I'm going to make at least 15% of my time doing things I'm terrible at, doing things that I'm learning. They studied the world's top musicians. And they found that the world's top musicians don't practice more than the second best musicians in the world. They just practice what they're bad at and they focus on that thing, it's called deliberate practice. Getting better at those things that you stink at.
And so, these ways of recognizing, "OK, this is making me feel nervous," great. Bringing that awareness and then what do we do about it? Oh, we move toward it, we try. It doesn't mean we always take risks. It doesn't mean we always do the absurd. It doesn't mean we always drop our pants. It means that we consider bigger possibilities because otherwise we stay stuck in a single zone. And so, that's kind of how I start the book, reframe that fear and then show, 10 or 12 ways to actually do that.
Harjes: And of course, to actually lean in when it's a little bit uncomfortable requires a great deal of motivation. You have to really want to get done whatever it is that you're trying to accomplish. So you talk a great deal in the book about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. I'd love for you to elaborate on that.
Sachs: Yeah. So, there's two kinds of motivation that scientists have discovered. In the old days, before the 1950s basically, there was this sense that people only did things because they wanted food, sex, or money. That was like what motivated everybody and if you want get people work harder, you'd give them a little bit more of one of those things, and people won't do anything for any other reason.
And there was a scientist who was studying monkeys in a lab, and he gave them some puzzles and he was rewarding them for solving the puzzles. And then he took the reward away and he said that the monkey's got more interested in the puzzles that had no reward. And then in fact, when he gave them a reward for that puzzle, they lost interest again. And he started to realize, wait, maybe not just humans, but all creatures do things not just because they want a reward, but because it motivates them because the journey itself is exciting and interesting.
And since then there's been tons and tons of work done in this idea of intrinsic motivation, not just that loving what you're doing makes you more creative, but oftentimes getting bonuses, and rewards, and points for doing what you love takes away that motivation. And so too often in our workplaces, we misunderstand what creativity requires. And creativity requires intrinsic motivation. You cannot pay people more to make them more creative.
It doesn't work. In fact, it makes them feel like monkeys in a lab just trying to crack the code, not trying to build something entirely new. And so how do we draw out more intrinsic motivation? Well, the first thing is obviously to create a workplace that has a purpose that is more than just about making money. But I found that was sort of well known. There was something much more surprising to me about a kind of a hack to create more intrinsic motivation, and it comes from a theory called flow theory.
Flow theory tells us that ... and it's one of the most widely understood creativity theories and widely studied, that when we have that right balance between the challenge that we face, and the skills that we bring to the challenge, when the challenge is just a little bit higher than our skills, intrinsic motivation pours forth, and we get so focused, we tune out the rest of the world. We probably all have this experience, you know the guy who came up with flow theory was a rock climber and just said, "You know what? No one pays me or gives me any reason to rock climb. It hurts. I get injured. It's painful. Why do I do it?" And he's because this is just beyond his skill level. And he's always upping his skills. So when we design projects where we need creativity, one of the most important things to realize is that if the challenge is too high for the team skill level, you're going to get anxiety, fear and shut down, and people will start focusing on those extrinsic motivators and they'll lose their intrinsic motivation to move forward.
But when we focus ... and when the challenge is too low, we get bored. So great leaders actually find a way to map out creative challenges, and make sure that those challenges are just above the skill level of their teams, and when it gets too high, they'll bring in new team members. And if you're there, it's like playing Candy Crush. People will play for endless hours just because it's just that little reach that they can't make.
So a lot of times when teams are flagging, losing creativity, when I'm losing creativity and motivation, I recalibrate the challenge to skill level. And that's a very interesting question that teams can ask. You know, where are we with challenge and skill? Are we at the right moment, and right point? And if we can get it just right, then intrinsic motivation pours forth.
Harjes: And so does that leave a role at all for an extrinsic motivators?
Sachs: Yeah. So the creative process turns out goes through a couple of different phases. There's the open mode of creativity. That's where you want to generate as many ideas as possible to dream really big, to come up with something that's never been thought of before. But obviously that brainstorming phase is not the whole part of building a project. Then you have to test it, and evaluate the data, and execute out in the world and then come back and rethink.
And it goes through from this sort of open mode of creativity to the execution phase, where you need to be very focused and not particularly creative. You don't want a bunch of really creative people questioning whether we should be doing something once you start down that road, you want to actually try it. So what great leaders tend to do is they focus on purpose, play, fun, flow, when it's time to brainstorm and open up new ideas and get crazy.
And then when it's time to actually look at the numbers, and execute, then you can start giving small rewards, and that's where extrinsic motivation keeps people on task. If a task is truly boring, giving them raisins or money really kind of tends to help. There's also a dynamic in which you can kind of combine the two. Some companies are giving that extrinsic motivation, with an intrinsic reward, saying the best creative performers are going to get a free day, a month to work on any project they want.
And that's kind of a little bit of both. We're going to give you something you love that's not an outer reward, but it is an extrinsic motivator. So yeah, I talk a lot about how leaders can really design the right motivation at the right time for their teams.
Harjes: So tying it all together, is there any particular company or leader that you think does a great job of utilizing all these strategies that we've discussed?
Sachs: Yeah, I mean one of the leaders that I came upon through this work, I mean I've talked to so many that I really admire, but the one I probably admired the most, comes from a company that I never thought to admire, comes from the world of CVS. This woman named Helena Folks, and just found her story is so inspiring and it encapsulates so much of this. So she was a vice president at CVS, and she was working on the corporate purpose. Right? And so this is not a major project for her.
She kind of knew where it was going, but they came up with this idea that CVS was going to deliver health and wellness to its communities. That was its purpose, right? Everyone's like, that's cool. So what? And then it occurred to her that they were selling $2 billion worth of tobacco every year, and that it really didn't fit with the corporate purpose to be selling $2 billion worth of tobacco. But that's just how pharmacies work.
That's every pharmacy in America sells tobacco, and that's a huge part of their business. So she went to their leaders and said, "You know, look, I'm a cancer survivor. My mother died of lung cancer. We've got to rethink this." And the leaders did something that I thought was pretty brilliant, so this is ... Helena is the hero of the story, but also her bosses who said, "Like, what you're thinking, we can't just cut this. If you can figure out a way that we can make more money by not selling cigarettes, we'll talk."
And this question, this moving away from the obvious just sort of group think that most companies fall into, of like this is the way it is, there's nothing you can do. They gave her a challenge, and the challenge was huge, but she stuck with that challenge and built a small cross disciplinary team of accountants, and marketers, and brand experts, and they found that because the Affordable Care Act was coming online, and the brand perception could be changed, that they could actually make a lot more money through partnerships and through brand value if they stop selling cigarettes.
She makes the case to the bosses and they say, "OK, we like what you're doing, we're going to make you head of retail." So now, the $2 billion is on her P&L. And they're like, "Do you still want to do this?" And she knows it's a huge risk to herself, to her company, but she worked through the non-obvious solution until it became intuitive, and obvious because it was so thought out down a path that no one had ever gone down before. They do it. They make $6 billion in the first year, more than they lost, and she becomes the president of CVS.
To this day, no other pharmacy chain has been able to follow suit. So it sounds like it's an obvious simple idea. It takes that much courage, and that much convention-bucking to unleash that much value for society, and for the company. And so, I figured if you could take a giant conservative company like that, and completely change it through some pretty structured, straightforward thinking and a lot of courage and grit, you know, we all can do this in our own lives.
Harjes: Yeah, that's an amazing story! I'd like to thank Jonah so much for being here today. There are copies of his book available, so please follow up with us afterwards if you'd like to receive one. And Jonah, last but not least, if people are looking for more of your work, where can they find you?
Sachs: Just Jonahsachs.com, or @JonahSachs on Twitter or LinkedIn.
Harjes: Thank you so much for being here!
Sachs: Yeah, thanks for having me!