How to innovate: Use the 10th man idea from World War Z

In World War Z, Brad Pitt asks the head of Israel’s spy agency why the country was so prepared for a zombie invasion.

The 10th man, he explained.

See, Israel’s intelligence service came across information from India that used the word “zombies” to describe the infestation sweeping the globe. Ten people reviewed the info. Nine of them called it nonsense. But the 10th man was required to disagree. The analysis process made it his job to take a position that was contrary to everyone else’s.

If you’re wondering if Israel actually does this, yes, it does indeed. The label differs, but the concept is the same: task someone with going against the grain. As this PDF from the Brookings Institution explains (page 15 of 40 in your PDF reader, and you can also find the file here; h/t):

As the organization responsible for national intelligence, AMAN has many experts who focus on political issues. But the key reason that AMAN has not become an arm of the military is that it has in place a number of tools to ensure the promotion of diverse views. First, in order to make sure that different and opposing opinions are heard within the Israeli intelligence community, AMAN has a culture of openness, where individuals are expected to voice dissenting opinions. The organizational slogan that reflects this openness is, “Freedom of opinion, discipline in action.” AMAN has two other tools that promote diversity: the “devil’s advocate” office and the option of writing “different opinion” memos. The devil’s advocate office ensures that AMAN’s intelligence assessments are creative and do not fall prey to group think.

Anyway, in World War Z, Mr. Top Spy took the word “zombies” to mean just that: a horde of uncontainably expanding undead approaching with naught but hunger for human flesh. No code word. No hidden meaning. Really just the dead come to life. Walkers. Well, I guess these are more like Runners. The movie calls them “zekes.”

When the zekes show up, a wall already protects Jerusalem. (Too bad they didn’t figure out how to protect the wall…)

What was interesting about the 10th man concept (another way to say devil’s advocate) was the idea of assigning someone to take on the role. That helps remove the political aspects of any group discussion. It’s not Joe Blow trying to sabotage Jane Lane, or Bob Zob trying to gain favor with Eddy Reddy; it’s just about picking apart the ideas to find the best one.

That made me consider what other roles would be assignable in a discussion focused on creating solutions to current or anticipated problems. We have 10th man. What about 9th man? That could be the one forced to choose actions closest to doing nothing. Or an 8th man – someone who proposed solutions that were clearly impossible. Whatever. The goal is to release people’s creativity without concern for generating like or dislike into the team dynamic. The 10th man concept could pull it off.

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