Friday, April 25, 2014

Ori Brafman: Does Your Business Hire Enough "Unusual Suspects"?

A Stanford GSB alumnus explains how chaos theory can help video game companies, hospitals, and the U.S. military.

Can introducing controlled chaos into an organization prompt fresh ideas to emerge? Ori Brafman thinks so. For two years, he worked with an organization that thrives on structure and hierarchy: the U.S. Army. His experience in bringing chaos theory into the Army’s decision-making process is recounted in his latest book, The Chaos Imperative, which he co-authored with Judah Pollack. Brafman says businesses and other organizations that find ways to create “white space” in which new ideas can form and introduce “unusual suspects” into their networks and staff will find that creative solutions to many of their challenges will follow. Consider this case of the artist and the video game, recounted in an excerpt from Brafman’s book:

Growing up in Japan, Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to be a painter or a puppeteer; he’d always been a dreamer and an artist. His college career was undistinguished. He attended a school for industrial arts and crafts but went to class only half the time. He spent most of his time looking for a banjo player, as he had fallen in love with bluegrass music and wanted someone to accompany him on his guitar. It took him five years to graduate. When he finally did, his dad stepped in to lend a helping hand. The father contacted an old friend who happened to be the CEO of Japanese video game maker Nintendo.

It’s important to remember what the video game industry was like when Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo’s CEO, did his friend a favor and took a meeting with his son. Picture what a typical arcade game looked like in the late 1970s: a single screen where two movable bars bounced a moving “ball” back and forth or where a player attempted to direct a similar-looking bouncing ball to break through a series of blockades. By the early 1980s the industry had graduated to crude, pixelated characters.

Kids the world over were lining up, quarters in hand, to play Space Invaders and Pac-Man. Those quarters, millions of times over, translated into huge profits, and a mini video game boom was under way, with companies vying to make the next big arcade hit.

Nintendo was not yet in that market. But it had already found success with a home entertainment system named “Color TV Game.”

Within the industry, Nintendo was viewed as an engineering powerhouse. After all, creating video games was basically an engineering feat that involved bringing together hardware (the game console and its parts) and software (the game itself).

Yamauchi had little interest in hiring someone with a degree in industrial design, such as Miyamoto. Yamauchi quipped, “I need engineers, not painters.” Nonetheless, in the end he offered him a job as a staff artist. The company had never had a staff artist before … nor did there seem to be much need for one.

Put yourself in Yamauchi’s shoes. How should Nintendo try to compete in the arcade game market? Well, of course, by creating a better console.

And that’s exactly what Nintendo did. Yamauchi formed three teams — competing with one another — to optimize the console. They focused on engineering solutions, things such as better screen resolution and improved graphics. Miyamoto, meanwhile, was relegated to an apprenticeship in the planning department. The closest Miyamoto got to game design was to create the illustrations for a game Nintendo was developing called Radar Scope.

If you’ve never heard of Radar Scope, don’t worry — you’re not alone. It was a variation on a theme popular at the time, in which the player had to shoot down monsters or aliens. There was nothing special about Radar Scope.

Thus, a short time later, in Redmond, Washington, 2,000 Radar Scope consoles sat unplugged, cast aside in the midst of a flurry of video game innovation. Trying to recover from the failed effort, Yamauchi called Miyamoto into his office and informed him that he needed a new game. His instructions were simple: Convert Radar Scope into a game that kids would want to play.

What happened next has become the stuff of legend. Removed from the fierce competition among the three R&D groups at Nintendo, Miyamoto began with his own ideas about game design. He believed that video games should be treated like stories. He envisioned what no one up to that point had thought about — making games that would cause the player to experience emotions.

For Miyamoto, video games were an opportunity to take the characters from his flipbooks and comic books and bring them to life. It’s a simple idea. But it was an idea that no one in the video game world had thought of before.

In the course of his conversations with the engineers, Miyamoto began to conceive of a new type of hero, a figure with red overalls, a red cap, and white gloves to make him stand out on the screen. He had stocky arms to better highlight his movement. Miyamoto gave him a hat and a bushy mustache, because animating hair and mouths was still very difficult. All of these were attempts to work within the constraints of the video game world and simplify the game.

Miyamoto also came up with a story for the game. The hero climbed up a half-finished building in an attempt to save his girlfriend, who had been kidnapped by his pet gorilla. Whimsical as it sounds, there was a backstory: The hero had mistreated his gorilla; to get back at him, the pet had stolen his master’s girlfriend.

Miyamoto thus gave the world Donkey Kong.

When Nintendo’s American sales reps were first shown the new game, they were horrified. Steeped in a culture of shoot-’em-ups, they simply couldn’t imagine how this game could succeed. One rep actually started looking for a new job. But Donkey Kong, of course, would prove to be Nintendo’s first blockbuster hit.

Following this success, Miyamoto was entrusted with his own creative team and given a very clear mandate: Create the most imaginative video games anyone had ever seen.

Miyamoto’s innovations were of two distinct types.

First, in this new game the screen wouldn’t be still. Rather than a static maze the characters maneuvered through, the screen would roll, and players would enter new scenes, new territories, and new worlds. The second innovation Miyamoto imposed was that this new game, like Donkey Kong, would be story-based.

While it seems like a no-brainer today, the innovation of weaving an emotionally based story into the game was revolutionary at the time. As Will Wright, the creator of the highly popular Sims games, has said of Miyamoto: “He approaches things from the player’s point of view, which is part of his magic.” The engineers simply looked at what they could do cheaply and within their technological constraints. Miyamoto, as an unusual suspect in the video game world, asked, What do the players want us to do?

What Miyamoto grasped long before other game designers and software engineers was that games should have emotional resonance. And his new game, Mario Brothers, was even more successful than Donkey Kong.

Miyamoto followed that with The Legend of Zelda, another blockbuster. The titular character was named for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda Fitzgerald. Not many other engineers and designers in the gaming world were drawing from literature. To date, The Legend of Zelda has had 16 sequels.

An outsider — a renegade, an unusual suspect —completely revolutionized the video game world.

Miyamoto performed two roles within Nintendo. The first was to bring a new, previously unheard voice into the fold. The second was to weave together two different worlds that had previously been separate: the traditional world of video games, and the whimsical world of fantasy and adventure comics.

We see this same pattern repeat itself in other businesses and ventures. In each case, white space opens up an opportunity for an outsider to come in and to introduce ideas that had not been considered before.

The challenge, of course, is that allowing an unusual suspect to enter the scene is one thing, and listening to him or her is entirely another.

The Army found this out the hard way.

In 2003, Americans were watching reports from Afghanistan and Iraq, and wondering why things were going wrong. Coming out of retirement to become chief of staff of the U.S. Army, Gen. Peter Schoomaker ordered a report on lessons learned. The report came to some interesting, if sobering, conclusions.

The Army had suffered from groupthink, taking a dogged, American-centric viewpoint and failing to hear alternative voices. Many leaders in the Army and among the civilian ranks of the Department of Defense imagined themselves as the cavalry in an old Hollywood western, riding in to the sound of a bugle to save the day. They convinced themselves that the Iraqis would be waiting with open arms when the United States invaded their country. What was tragic was that there were dissenting voices, but as an institution the Army wasn’t able to listen to them.

“The problem with our modern wars,” U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey (now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) explained to me, “is that you have privates on the ground who realize we’re fighting a different war. They see it every day. And they’re adjusting. And then you have the general officers.

“But then you have the people in the middle. The majors, the lieutenant colonels. They’ve been with the organization for 10, 15, 20 years. And they don’t want to change. They want to keep doing their job. And they realize that I’m not going to be there in two years. So they ‘yes, sir’ me, knowing full well that they can just wait me out.”

Enter Steve Rotkoff, one of the founding members of Red Team University, which strove to create critical thinkers, giving officers both the tools to become productive dissenters and the platform to offer their viewpoints.

Students in the university were challenged to think in new ways, to learn to see a problem from multiple perspectives. It was often an uphill battle in an organization that prided itself more on physical fitness and unswerving loyalty than on teasing out the many different ways of looking at a problem.

I had suggested that the army could learn a lot by visiting Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. This was one of the hospitals where Lisa Kimball and her nonprofit, the Plexus Institute, were using a process called liberating structures to fight Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

“Why are you going to drag a bunch of officers to visit a hospital?” Steve wanted to know.

I pointed out to Steve that a hospital is a lot like the Army. It’s very hierarchical, with doctors on top. The staff wears uniforms. And hospitals contain highly siloed departments.

What was interesting about the hospital was that it had brought rather disparate voices into the conversation about controlling MRSA infection. And the results were stunning: MRSA rates had dropped by nearly half. Something was going on that wasn’t pure serendipity.

Our host, along with Kimball, was Dr. Jeff Cohn, who at the time was the chief quality officer at the hospital. The white-haired physician explained that hospital-acquired infections had become such a problem that the institution needed to do something different to stop all these preventable deaths.

At the meeting, people from different departments shared how things were going and how each of them was feeling. You could almost see the steam coming out of Steve’s ears. Then the same nurse invited us to a small breakout session. “This is the huddle for the nurse technicians,” she explained with a warm smile. All five women in the breakout group were on the lower rungs of the hospital’s hierarchy. They hadn’t received much formal education, and their jobs were some of the toughest in the hospital — washing patients and changing sheets.

One of the nurse techs immediately spoke up. “I want to bring something up. Is that OK?”

“Sure,” the facilitator said.

“Well, something’s been bugging me. And I’ve been trying to let it go and shut my big mouth” — at this, the other women laughed — “but I can’t. I work in the MRSA isolation unit. And it’s a double room. So I get one patient who has a serious infection, but the other patient, he seems almost fine. Sure, he tested positive for MRSA, but his skin isn’t covered with sores. And it just worries me. What if we’re infecting the patient who isn’t as sick?” The other techs nodded in unison.

“That is messed up!” one of them chimed in.

I expected the facilitator to quiet the protest, or at best suggest that perhaps she’d bring up the matter in a future staff meeting. Instead, she got on the phone with Dr. Cohn.

Five minutes later, Dr. Cohn was in the room with us, listening to the concern. “I had no idea this was happening,” he said. “This wasn’t a decision made by infection control. And you’re right, we should change the policy.” And with that, the change was made.

“Unbelievable!” said Steve, who up to this point had remained silent. He went on, “This is unbelievable. You just fixed a huge problem. You just saved lives.” He started laughing. “And the knowledge was there all along. You just had to get the right people in the same room.”

Dr. Cohn explained to him, “This happens every day. In hospitals these are people who never have much of a voice. And we found that we just have to …” He paused. “We have to listen.”

And that’s when the light went on for Steve and me. We didn’t just need to have dissenters in the Army; we needed to teach people to intermediate between different worlds, even in an organization with the rigidity and structure of the Army.

Thus, among the tasks of Red Team University is teaching soldiers and officers alike to become like Lisa, acting as weavers, intermediaries, in whatever big or small way they can. One soldier said something that, for me, captured it all: “I thought my job as a leader was to come into a unit and tell people what to do. To be a mentor and a guide, but also to take charge. Now I realize my job is to draw out ideas, to listen, and to connect.”

Excerpts from the The Chaos Imperative by Ori Brafman and Judah Pollack were used by permission from the publisher Crown Business. All rights reserved. Ori Brafman is a graduate of Stanford GSB. He consults with Fortune 500 companies on organization, disruption, and innovation. His other books include The Starfish and the Spider, Sway and Click.