Why you need to hire troublemakers


troublemakersThe conventional wisdom is that you want to avoid hiring troublemakers at all costs. After all, when building a company everyone has to be singing from the same page in the hymn book, right? We all need to be rowing together, correct?

Well the conventional wisdom is just wrong. I’ve always been drawn to the George Bernard Shaw quote,

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Perhaps that’s because I’m a bit of a troublemaker myself. I still recall getting into an argument with my elementary school French teacher. The school’s idea of teaching French was to have us learn written French by reading Molière in the original, totally archaic idiom of the language! Not only did I think it totally ridiculous to teach French in elementary school, or actually in public school at all, I was convinced that attempting to learn it by reading a 17th century author whose language only bore a passing resemblance to the French spoken in modern day France was absurd. Well you can guess who won that argument.

I’ve always questioned authority and the conventional way of doing things. Beyond that whether it’s conceit or hubris I often felt there was a better way of doing things – and I knew what it was. In fact this lead to my short by exciting career in music sound reinforcement. I’d loved music since my early teens when I not only spent hours listening to rock radio but taped my favorite songs to listen to again, when I wanted, not when the radio station deigned to play them. But the quality of sound reinforcement was almost always poor. You couldn’t understand the singer, or even hear them or other instruments disappeared in the mix. But how that dissatsifaction was the key to my becoming the Chief Sound Engineer in one of the country’s best music venues is a story for another day.

I’m not the only entrepreneur who self-characterizes as a troublemaker. I recall seeing the business card of a TechStars mentor. I forget his name, but not his title:
Chief Troublemaker!

I was quite struck by seeing the headline In Defense of Troublemakers’ Review: Rocking the Boat in of all places The Wall Street Journal’s opinion page – hardly the bastion of radicalism. The author, Charlene Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent decades studying the effects of groupthink in multiple settings. She makes a very strong case as to why troublemakers are not only to be tolerated but should be cultivated. Ms. Nemeth has found that even a single dissenter has the power to crack the foundation of a majority view. Even when you don’t agree with the outlier, or when the outlier is just plain wrong, the act of dissent liberates your thinking.

No corporation, least of all a startup, can afford mindless consensus. In fact I recall being told that the difference between a startup and a mature company was that the latter could well survive a single serious mistake, the former could not. As I’ve posted previously, startups are decision machines, so I’m always on the lookout for research into the science of decision making and how that affects my mentoring of founders.

A large portion of her book, In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business is devoted to examples of how dissent improves decision making inside corporations. She condemns conventional brain storming as a way to collect a bunch of bad ideas rather than generating the heat of dissent which forges better, not more, ideas.

Finally Professor Nemeth makes a striking argument against conventional diversity in groups. Simplistically looking at the makeup of a group by gender, race or experience, leads to a group that looks diverse but all thinks the same way, and worse yet, reinforces a wrong-headed consensus. Keep this in mind when inviting your colleagues to a meeting, and that you will do, as meetings are a necessary evil not just in large corporations but in startups as well. Thus group decision-making is just as important if not more so, than individual decision making.

The subtitle to the book review by Philip Delves Broughton neatly summarizes the book, In Defense of Troublemakers, and it’s thesis: In the courthouse or the boardroom, dissent improves the way we think—stimulating thought that is open, flexible and original. 


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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