Build an Un-Bridge

Problem: Create a means to get across a waterway (without getting wet)

Solution: Build an un-bridge

I love the solution that RO&AD Architecten came up with (above) for the Municipality of Bergen op Zoom in the Netherlands. It is a great example of looking at the problem differently and of not using “conventional wisdom” to solve a problem. Their website is as clever as their bridge solution.

This “contrarian” bridge reminds me of corporate examples of technology solutions we’ve been involved with in Silicon Valley. These business and technical solutions came from people who were able to conceptualize problem/solution differently. Some organizational cultures encourage this behavior and others aggressively discourage it (knowingly and unknowingly).

Why isn’t contrarian thinking the norm?

con·trar·i·an [kuhn-trair-ee-uhn] noun: a person who takes an opposing view, especially one who rejects the majority opinion

In our experience, we’ve seen lots of bad decisions (we know in retrospect they were bad because of the measurable failure they caused later on); but at the time they were made, they were “excellent decisions” made by “subject matter experts” that could not be challenged.

So how does this happen?

Often, this is the result of “Groupthink” in which a group of people are unable to step out of their “system” to see it in perspective — to see the “systems” system. They can’t process ideas that are contrary to the common wisdom of the group. People that challenge this conventional wisdom are rejected by the group as being negative or pessimistic (pesəˈmistik| adjective : tending to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen). Rather we often hear, “We need ‘can-do,’ not ‘can’t-do’ thinking in this organization, blah, blah, blah…”

I love this definition of "Groupthink" from Wiki, "

“A psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people. It is the mode of thinking that happens when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives."

President Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs failure was one of the first cases where this was documented and studied at schools of government and management. Kennedy had the “best and brightest” in his cabinet, yet they made a colossal mistake that lead to people being killed and eventually to events that almost erupted in nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

They studied the failure afterwards when Kennedy wondered how so many smart people could have arrived at such a bad conclusion. Researchers found that each Cabinet Member thought that the President wanted to invade Cuba and their role was to support their Commander in Chief by finding the reasons to justify militarily action against Cuba. If this sounds familiar, the United States had many future conflicts where this same failed logic played out… with devastating results.

The outcome of the Bay of Pigs failure was the creation of the “Critical Advisor” position for every major decision; who’s job it was to take the contrarian view of any decision/conclusion and argue the alternative position. This became an appointed role because they realized that it had to be sanctioned by the executive or the contrarian would be seen as the guy “just being negative” or the one that was “not a team player.”

The US Military institutionalized this with their “Red Team” concept (“Red Teaming is normally associated with assessing vulnerabilities and limitations of systems or structures”). Again, this is a defined/appointed role that is supposed to take the alternative view point in order to vet a problem/solution. A Red Team was used by the Navy Seals to refine the planning of the OBL raid, and I’m sure contributed to mission success.

Organizations need more, not less of this kind of sanctioned alternative thinking. It sometimes results in “un-bridges” or alternative views that are rather intriguing.