Notes from the Field #4: Team B's

When I was reading Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies of 2015 list, one item that really stuck out was one of the ways HBO have been able to adapt to the shifting and disruptive media landscape. A big driver of this has been CEO Richard Plepler, and a technique he uses called Team B's to foster innovation.

Team B has its roots in the spy world, first being developed by the CIA as a method to aid in analysis. The premise was simple - create a separate team of outsiders to put eyes on the same data sets that analysts in the intelligence community were looking at, and challenge the conventional wisdom and mental models with an open mind.

While the original Team B is shrouded in controversy (it is credited as kickstarting the massive arms build up with the Soviet Union) I can definitely see the wisdom in its application. 

While we like to think that humans are rational beings, the truth is we are very irrational creatures. We are easily swayed by cognitive bias, and can often fall under the spell of false inferences about other people or situations that are drawn in an illogical fashion.

This brings us to "the Devil's Advocate", a term that was originally coined from a practice in the Catholic church during the process of cannonization. A canon lawyer was appointed to take the position of the devil, arguing against the candidate irrespective of their beliefs, poking holes in the evidence and being skeptical. The church understood that this was a very simple technique to break the spell of bias.

Organizations today can never rest on their laurels - indeed the biggest dangers occur when leaders fall under the spell of a single mental model, and only look inwards instead of confronting the realities of their environment. By engaging a separate 'Team B' to question strategy, an organization runs a good chance of ensuring they don't miss opportunities and get disrupted.

For a wider list of the different types of Cognitive Bias, check out my deep dive on the book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, including Loss Aversion and the Power of Commitment, Value Attribution and Diagnosis Bias, and Procedural Justice, Monetary Motivation & Group Conformity.