Adam Grant: What's your favorite movie?
Kid 1: One of them is "Wreck-It Ralph."
AG: And another?
Kid 1: "Mr. Peabody and Sherman."
AG: My kids have seen a lot of cartoons.
Kids: A lot.
Kid 2: On the TV and in the movie theater.
AG: My wife and I love animated films, too. When we were growing up, there was only one name in animated movies —
Disney. For about six decades, they were pretty much the only game in town. By the mid-90s, Disney films had started to follow a formula. They would take an old story, add a few musical numbers and — voilà! — "Pocahontas," "Hercules," "Mulan." But then, something new happened in animation.
(Audio clip, "Toy Story") To infinity and beyond!
AG: Pixar reinvented how you make an animated movie. Instead of drawing characters, you code them on a computer, which makes them come alive in 3-D instead of being flat and two-dimensional. I'm sure you remember Pixar's first computer-animated movie, "Toy Story."
(Clip, "Toy Story") There's a snake in my boot!
AG: It was a smash. Not just because the tech was cool, but also because the story was fresh.
Brad Bird: It was just so vivid and funny, and the characters were original.
AG: This is Brad Bird. He's a writer, animator and director.
BB: They weren't doing the 10 songs and all that stuff that was getting very standard in animation at the time.
AG: Pixar's first three films got multiple Oscar nominations. They grossed over a billion dollars. The studio was a perfectly calibrated hit machine. And that's when they made a strange decision: they hired Brad. He was coming off a big project that tanked.
BB: "Don't make me go back there, man! Don't make me go back!"
AG: And it wasn't his first failure.
BB: I got fired from Disney, and I was actually fired from two of the first three jobs I held.
AG: But Pixar saw promise in Brad. He came to the studio with a bold vision for a new film. And he didn't recruit the star teams who had created their earlier hits. Instead, he deliberately assembled a band of Pixar's biggest misfits.
BB: Black sheep.
John Walker: Disgruntled.
Nicole Paradis Grindle: I say, "pirate."
AG: Doesn't exactly sound like a dream team. But somehow, the movie they made together grossed over 600 million dollars, won two Oscars and was Pixar's biggest hit yet. It was ... incredible.
(Multiple voices) Incredible. Incredible. Incredible.
AG: The critics loved it almost as much as my kids did.
(Screaming) Kids: Awesome!
Kid 2: I want to see it again!
Kid 1: Me, too.
Kids: Again! Again! Again!
AG: I'm Adam Grant, and this is WorkLife, my podcast with TED. I'm an organizational psychologist. I study how to make work not suck. In this show, I'm inviting myself inside the minds of some truly unusual people, because they've mastered something I wish everyone knew about work. Today: shake-ups, and the value of the outsiders inside your workplace. Thanks to Bonobos for sponsoring this episode.
What's the best time to shake things up? In most workplaces, it happens when you're struggling. When the chips are down, you're desperate, and you have nothing to lose by taking some risks. But by then, it's often too late. You don't have the resources to run bold experiments. The evidence suggests that the best time to shake things up is actually when you're doing well. That's when you have the time, energy and freedom to innovate. But sadly, research shows that success often makes us complacent. Experts call it the "fat cat syndrome." Think about a time when you've been at the top of your game. Did you really want to embrace something radically different? Of course not. You probably became overconfident in your recipe and resistant to try new things.
Take Blockbuster Video. At one point, they were apparently opening a new store every 17 hours. So they didn't see any reason to buy a little mail-order company called "Netflix." Oops! One day, the CEO of a successful company gave me that line I hate: "But that's the way we've always done it." My answer? "Blockbuster. BlackBerry. Polaroid. Toys 'R' Us. Do you want me to keep going?" So how do you shake things up before it's too late? For that, we're going to the movies.
In 1999, Warner Brothers released the first animated movie directed by Brad Bird: "Iron Giant."
John Walker: I remember being so excited about it.
AG: This is Brad's producer, John Walker. It was the first big project for both Brad and John. On opening day, John went to see it in a big theater in Times Square.
JW: And there were three people in there. And I went, "What the heck is going on?" So I spent the rest of the day just hanging around in front of the marquee and whenever anybody would come by and look at the poster, I'd go, "It's a really good movie. I'll buy your tickets."
I probably bought, like, 10 people tickets to see it, because there was no one in the theaters, it was empty. Empty. It was just sad.
JW: So I thought, that's it, that's the end of me, I'll have "The Iron Giant" on my resume and nothing more.
AG: The film failed commercially. But it was wildly original. And the leaders at Pixar saw potential there. So Brad Bird and John Walker got the call from two of the studio's cofounders, Ed Catmull and Steve Jobs.
JW: They go, you know, "We'll bring this bacteria in from the outside and see if it grows in the petri dish," you know.
BB: They were actively choosing a guy to come up who had just made a big flop.
AG: Pixar was founded on a disruptive vision. Their leaders fervently believed it was never too early to throw your own recipe out the window. Steve Jobs wanted to keep raising the bar: bigger hits, longer run times. So he picked a couple of outsiders to drive a shake-up.
BB: They were feeling like, "We're in danger of falling into certain habits, because we have the same group that are doing things. And we're very proud of this group, and this group is very talented. But we want to shake things up." And they felt like whatever I was going to do, it was going to be different.
JW: And so they said, "OK, well, here. Can you guys do it? Can you do it in half the time, half the money?"
AG: They gave the answer you'd probably give if Steve Jobs had asked you that question.
JW: Well, sure we can!
You know? You just say you can, right? And then you try to go figure out how to do it.
AG: So Pixar hired John Walker and Brad Bird. Brad had been working on a new story for an animated film. It would be called "The Incredibles." And it was different than anything Pixar had ever done.
BB: Everything that the film was, was all the things that CG animation was then terrible at. It was full of humans, which, they were the weakest thing in CG animation, if you look at humans circa that time.
AG: Pixar films had only had humans as minor characters. And they didn't look very convincing. To date, Pixar's movies were mostly filled with toys, monsters and talking bugs. Now, Brad was pitching a movie that would require animating a whole family of not just humans, humans with superpowers.
BB: It was full of water and fire and wind and all this stuff that CG animation was no good at doing. Hair.
AG: It turns out, hair was a real problem. Prior to "The Incredibles," no one had even bothered to code long hair, because it was just impossible in CG animation.
BB: It's almost like everybody used a ton of hair spray before they got filmed, because the hair doesn't move much. And, you know, we were doing a film where it was part of Violet's character.
AG: Violet is a member of the Incredibles family — a shy, moody teenager.
(Clip, "The Incredibles") Violet: Normal? What do you know about normal? What does anyone in this family know about normal?
AG: She was supposed to spend a huge part of the film covering her face with her long, black hair.
JW: We'd seen these beautiful tests.
AG: Producer John Walker.
JW: And it was like, wow, she's shaking her head, and the hair is flowing, and it's gorgeous, and it's going to be beautiful.
AG: But the tests were oversimplified. The hair moved right, but kind of looked like strips of rubber. When it was time to do the full computer animation, Violet's hair looked awful. So John asked what it would take to get it right. And he was shocked at the answer.
JW: "We can't actually do the movie like that. That would take 10 years and 10 million dollars." I was like, "Then why did you show us that?" I'm trying to get myself ready to go tell Brad that we're going to cut Violet's hair.
BB: "You can't do it! That's the character. She's got to have the hair!" As the film goes on, she feels enough growing self-assurance that she pulls the hair out of her face. Her hair had a story arc.
AG: To do hair and water and all these other new images correctly, Pixar execs guessed that the film could cost half a billion dollars and take a decade to make. Brad needed some original thinking. So this unconventional director went looking for a team of unconventional recruits — the outsiders among Pixar's insiders. The black sheep.
BB: They are not always the, um, smiling-est, easiest people to work with. Sometimes, they’re a little grumpy.
AG: Brad, have you ever been a black sheep yourself?
BB: Yeah. Yeah. Yes. Yeah. My family was kind of like the family in "The Incredibles." We had these dinners where everybody vented and said what they thought. That's the attitude that I kind of grew up in. And I found very quickly, the world doesn't work that way.
AG: Brad searched Pixar's ranks for people who were frustrated with the status quo, people who had risky ideas that had been dismissed or overlooked. You might have one of those people on your team. Or maybe you're the black sheep.
BB: There's a big impetus, especially with success, to repeat whatever has worked before. You know? If it ain't broke, don't fix it. But I was looking for a bunch of people that were kind of dissatisfied with the way things were.
AG: Turns out, Brad was onto something. Research shows that the kind of frustration he harnessed can fuel creativity. In other words, the curmudgeons on your team could be great untapped resources. I'm sure you've seen companies hire external consultants or executives to shake things up. But there's evidence that you don't have to turn to outside hires. You can go to the black sheep already working within the company. Consider one study that was done at a company that makes oil drilling equipment. Supervisors evaluated how often employees brought new and innovative ideas to the table. The employees who were rated the most creative were the ones who felt dissatisfied with their jobs. Their frustration with problems motivated them to develop fresh solutions.
But dissatisfaction didn't always lead to creativity. It only helped when people felt committed to the company and had access to the feedback and support they needed. When you ignore them, disgruntled people channel their frustration in unproductive or even counterproductive directions. If you're aware they're out there, though, and you really listen to them, they can become your allies.
Lisa Bodell: They always say, "Innovation is the pirate ship that sails into the yacht club." Nobody likes it, but they appreciate it later.
AG: This is Lisa Bodell. She spent part of her career in advertising and start-ups.
LB: I came there to do really great, motivating and inspiring things, and I was spending my day just managing processes and procedures and crap.
AG: Lisa got fed up with the dozens of meaningless tasks that define so many work environments. So she started a company called FutureThink to help organizations shake up the status quo.
(Clip) LB: ... and ideally, walk away with things that will help you simplify your work and your life to get you moving forward. And what I thought we could do is go through about — I don't know, 500 PowerPoint slides. Does that work for you all? (Laughter) No?
AG: Her big breakthrough came when she was giving a talk to a few dozen executives at a manufacturing company.
LB: I realized quickly that these people didn't give a crap about what I was talking about. And so I called a break, and I said, "Listen, I'm going to shake things up."
AG: She looked at all these bored executives, and told them to kill their own company.
LB: I challenged each of those groups to identify who their number one competitor was. And then I said, "Pretend you're that competition. Pretend you have that hat on. I want you to put yourself out of business." I mean — the room lit on fire. They were so excited, because I gave them permission to talk about the things that were literally verboten. It was a mindset shift as well as a business strategy shift.
AG: When I heard about the exercise, I was expecting a roomful of complaints and cynicism. Then I watched it happen. And I have never seen a more energized group of leaders in my life.
LB: Really what it does is give people a framework and permission to start attacking things that aren't working. And that's what's energizing to people. They don't know the difference, Adam, between being in a groove and being in a rut. And most people, when you talk about complacency, are in a rut. And until you talk to them about, "What do you wish you could change? Why are you frustrated?" they get pumped up.
AG: One thing that's always fascinated me about this exercise is how different it would be if you ran it as "save the company." And I was interested in hearing what led you to the boldness of killing the company rather than saving the company.
LB: Save means "safe" and "preserve." You know? I think of a life preserver. "How can we keep what we have safe?" versus "How can we get rid of what we have and do things better?" It's permission to admit that things might not be right, so you can look at what's not working and make space for things that are.
AG: If you were asked to kill your company, where would you start? You might begin the way Lisa does: gather some people together to give their frustration a voice. Put them on offense, not defense, by asking them to attack the problems they see. And then invite them to run with their best ideas. Lisa's approach has worked in all kinds of environments: banks, tech companies, city governments, schools. And Brad Bird did his own version of it at Pixar.
BB: Pixar kind of invented a lot of the stuff that now everyone takes for granted. I mean, they were the best in the world at it. Those methods weren't going to work for our film.
AG: Brad challenged the black sheep to try different solutions to their toughest animation problems, like Violet's hair.
BB: They don't want to do something the way that it's always been done. For every 20 people that say, "This is how you do it," there's usually one person going, "Uh, you don't have to do it that way. There's another way that you could do it."
AG: But there was one problem that neither Brad nor John Walker had anticipated.
JW: They were in different rooms, they were doing different things.
AG: The technical people had been unleashed to build all these new tools. But the creative people didn't really understand how to use them.
JW: Something would go wrong, an email would come from one side, going, "Hey, your simulator is broken," over to the people that were building the simulator. And the simulator guys would write back, "No, no, no, no — it's operator error." And they would go back and forth like that. And we'd go, "Oh, gosh. This is not working."
AG: Brad and John started listening to the people on the front lines. And they suddenly realized there was a simple solution to their complex problem: put the technical people together with the animators in the same rooms.
JW: As soon as that started to happen, it was like magic, because somebody would show them the problem and say, "Look what happens — I do this, and the hair flies around the room." And the guy building the simulator goes, "Well, you've got to hit F3-7 and put this little bit of the code in there. Didn't you know that?" And they go, "No, we didn't know that!" Beautiful thing when you go after black sheep, you say, "Hey, I'll give your crazy idea a try." That's kind of where they want to go.
AG: So wait, Brad — does that mean you're just trying to surround yourself constantly with angry people?
BB: No, I mean, I don't want just disgruntled people. There's plenty of those, and they don't do a damn thing for anybody. I want people who are disgruntled because they have a better way of doing things and they are having trouble finding an avenue — racing cars that are just spinning their wheels in a garage rather than racing. You open that garage, and man, those people will take you somewhere.
AG: So you've got your team of dissatisfied people. You're ready for them to shake things up. Now, how do you get them all innovating in the same direction? More on that after the break.
OK, this is going to be a different kind of ad. I've played a personal role in selecting the sponsors for this podcast, because they all have interesting cultures of their own. Today, we're going inside the workplace at Bonobos. A few years ago, Sam Gonzalez was on an all-staff call at Bonobos, when the top boss said something that took his breath away.
Sam Gonzalez: She had said, one of the things in that conference call was that we were going to embrace, in our marketing campaigns, we were going to start to think about gender identity.
AG: For Sam, a guide in one of Bonobos's shops, the idea that a men's clothing brand was going to focus on gender identity wasn't just exciting; it was personal.
SG: I'd worked at Bonobos for a little over a year before I figured out that I am trans and I want to transition. And that will include for me letting everyone that I work with know and everyone who comes into my life know that this is a part of who I am.
AG: Sam had prepared for the worst.
SG: What does it mean to transition at work? Because I had only heard horror stories. But then, once I did, I was proved 100 percent wrong. People were super open, they were incredibly caring and respectful.
AG: And then, just a few months later, Sam found himself on this all-hands phone call. Micky Onvural, then the copresident and now Bonobos CEO, said the company was going to start a public conversation about gender identity. As soon as the call finished, Sam sent her an email.
SG: I said, "I don't know if you know this, but I am trans, and I have transitioned at Bonobos, and I've been here for a while. And you have no idea what this type of representation means to someone like me."
Micky Onvural: When I first got Sam's email, I was, to be honest, completely overwhelmed. I think I probably shed a tear or two. I'm Micky Onvural, I am the CEO of Bonobos. For me, it was very touching that someone felt comfortable enough to be able to tell me that personal story.
AG: Think about how rare that is, for a junior employee to feel comfortable emailing someone that high up. I almost never see it, even though I spend a lot of time encouraging senior leaders to be open. At Bonobos, Micky wasn't just receptive to new ideas from below, she actively encouraged them.
SG: ... and I had talked a little bit about, in my email, that I had met Chris Mosier, and I think that he would be a fantastic person for us to highlight.
MO: The first thing I did, I forwarded it on to our production team, and I said, "Sam's just had this amazing idea of us bringing Chris Mosier in and shooting him in our clothes. Let's do it."
AG: Chris Mosier was part of the American men's duathlon team in 2016. That made him the first openly transgender athlete to compete for Team USA.
SG: Chris was one of the first people that I saw that made me feel like being trans is a thing, and you can do it, and you can transition and you can be happy.
AG: So Sam made a pitch for Bonobos to feature Chris in a commercial.
Chris Mosier: For a men's clothing company to say, trans men are men and can be a part of our campaign, to me, personally, was a big deal.
AG: That's Chris. A few months later, Bonobos launched a commercial that featured him.
CM: It was sort of what I was searching for when I was younger. Like, if I would have seen out trans men being a part of men's campaigns, being a part of men's fashion magazines or commercials on TV, that are talking about men and masculinity, I think that my trajectory would have been drastically different as a person.
AG: So, Sam, as you reflect on this whole experience of first transitioning at work and then bringing on Chris as a spokesperson, how does that make you feel?
SG: There's not really a word to describe it. I think "awesome" is too small of a word.
AG: Awesome is too small a word. I like that. And I like the idea that big ideas can come from anywhere in a company, as long as there's support at the top. Bonobos makes great clothes that can fit every guy. Ordering on their website is easy, they ship fast, and if it doesn't fit, they want to know. Visit bonobos.com, enter promo code TED at checkout, and get 20 percent off your first order. That's bonobos.com and promo code TED for 20 percent off.
When you're gathering a group of people for a major shake-up, how do you motivate them? Your first instinct is probably to inspire them.
(Clip, "Apollo 13") We never lost an American in space, we're sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch. Failure is not an option!
(Clip, "The Golden Age") Let them come with the armies of hell! They will not pass! (Cheers)
(Clip, "The Waterboy") You can do it!
AG: If you're working with a bunch of disgruntled black sheep, you'll feel especially compelled to convey confidence, show enthusiasm and make sure they don't get discouraged by the sheer difficulty of the task. But if you're Brad Bird and you're making "The Incredibles," you do the exact opposite. Brad told his team no one thought they could pull it off.
Nicole Paradis Grindle: That's the kind of challenge that lights a fuse in Brad. And that's how he leads our teams.
AG: This is Nicole Paradis Grindle. She's been a producer at Pixar since the mid-90s. When Nicole joined "The Incredibles" team, they'd been struggling with the animation for about a year.
NPG: I was working with the engineers who were trying to figure out how to do the hair and the cloth. And they were saying it was impossible, Brad was asking for too much ... And they just kept saying, "Nope, nope, nope, we can't do it." They were trying, and the stuff they were producing looked terrible. We have these crew meetings once a week, so everyone's wandering in first thing in the morning with their coffee, piling into this big theater that we have. And he gets up in front of this room of people, and he just starts yelling and telling them, "They think we can't do this! They think we're too slow, they think we're not good enough! I'm telling you, we're going to do this!" You know? And people love it — I mean, it's this pep rally.
AG: What Brad did by instinct is actually backed by evidence. If you want to motivate black sheep, give them a battle to fight, a particular kind of battle.
BB: One thing that is very effective is to find a common enemy. But the enemy doesn't have to be a person. It can be a mindset. It can be a presumption. It can be a system that doesn't want to change. It can even be something like a trend in movies that is just making movies stupider. You can make that the enemy. And you can put it up in front of people and say, "You know what I don't like? I don't like X. And here's how I think we can not do this thing that everyone is doing and really dazzle the audience." And people like that, because you're putting them on the pirate ship. You're not going with the well-funded, safe routes. You're kind of striking your sails in a storm. And you're OK with it. That fires people up, you know? It fires me up.
Samir Nurmohamed: It sounds like in that moment, Brad was shaping how his team perceived those outside of their team and basically framed those individuals as critics or naysayers.
AG: This is Samir Nurmohamed, my colleague at Wharton. He studies what happens when we're cast in the role of underdog.
SN: Stories of underdogs and favorites permeate societies: David versus Goliath, Horatio Alger, Ivan the Fool in Russian literature. You see these examples of underdogs going from rags to riches or performing against others' low expectations, across the world.
AG: An underdog isn't a kind of person. It's a mindset that can help you approach problems the way black sheep do. You can position people as underdogs by telling them they're not expected to succeed. And surprisingly, the uphill battle is often the one that people are most excited to fight. In a study with job seekers who had faced discrimination in their careers, Samir randomly assigned some of them to tell a story about how they had been underdogs against the odds. It almost doubled their chances of landing a job in the following month.
SN: You actually experience more efficacy and more confidence to do well, and it leads to higher performance.
AG: In another study, Samir had people fill out a survey about their negotiating style. Then he told them that, based on their results, he had calculated the probability of their success in a negotiation. He told some participants they were the favorites; some, they were evenly matched; and told others that they were the underdogs.
SN: The underdog actually ended up reaching the more creative solution. People who were told that they couldn't succeed actually ended up performing better. And the reason for this is that they essentially wanted to prove the researchers wrong.
AG: The favorites had nothing to prove. They got complacent. The underdogs were driven to show they had been misjudged, which happens in all kinds of jobs. Even Michael Jordan motivated himself this way.
SN: Even in his Hall of Fame induction speech, when the world came out to celebrate with him, he was calling out his school coach who chose another player over him and how this fueled his motivation to prove them wrong. What's remarkable is that Jordan was talking about being underestimated after being universally recognized as not only the greatest basketball player ever, but as one of the greatest athletes of all time. Jordan was still constructing that perception of being underestimated and using that as motivation to prove others wrong.
AG: But before you start cutting down all your colleagues in the name of motivation, keep in mind that there's a wrong way to do it.
SN: This doesn't mean you go around the workplace telling everyone that they can't succeed. That's not the way to instill this motivation. As a person in this position who's seen as an underdog, you have to feel like you have the capabilities to succeed.
AG: For the underdog approach to work, the low expectations need to come from the right messenger, a natural adversary.
SN: When a really credible person tells you you can't succeed, in some sense, you basically internalize those expectations, your confidence drops, you actually believe them, and you don't perform as successfully. On the other hand, when you receive low expectations from someone who's not seen as credible, you perceive them as really incompetent or not knowledgeable about either the domain that you're performing in or your own abilities. This is what sparks that desire to prove others wrong.
AG: So if you're rallying salespeople, you can emphasize that R&D doesn't think they can hit their targets. And if you're trying to motivate technical or creative people, you can tell them they're being doubted by a bunch of suits.
NPG: That's what those black sheep probably are looking for, is an opportunity to show what they can do.
AG: Pixar producer Nicole Grindle saw Brad's underdog gambit pay off. The black sheep at the studio felt the naysayers had no business judging their abilities — or the new animation techniques they were about to invent.
NPG: The idea that we're proving folks wrong, I think, is the prime motivator. I mean, of course, we want to make a great film and a great story, and that's a given. But proving that, you know, proving to the man that we're better than they think we are — that's exciting. And that's what folks in this industry live to do, is, you know, act in that kind of a story.
AG: The last step for energizing your shake-up team is to calibrate the degree of difficulty. How challenging should the goal be?
BB: I think you always have the impossible task, because basically, to do really good work is hard. And if you're doing it right, you are kind of an underdog. You should be shooting for something that's out of reach. And maybe you don't hit it, but at the end of it, if you are reaching for something that's beyond your reach, you're probably going to extend your reach from your previous work.
AG: In psychology, we call that kind of reach a "just-manageable difficulty." It's a challenge that tests and stretches your skills to the very edge of what you think is possible. It has to be tough, but it can't set you up for certain failure, either. As Pixar producer John Walker puts it:
JW: Sometimes you have to swim upstream. Sometimes, you have to swim upstream. But if you swim upstream too long, something is probably wrong.
AG: OK, I came away from Pixar convinced that to shake things up, it can help to recruit the people you'd least expect — frustrated people — and listen to them. Then motivate them by making them into underdogs, against the odds or a difficult enemy. But I was curious about whether this could all work in a place that's the total opposite of Pixar: the ultimate bureaucracy, an environment where strict orders are followed, old traditions crush new technologies, and creativity isn't just not rewarded, it's sometimes actively punished.
(Clip) Recruit training, where a man is taught the basic skills for the sea.
AG: The US Navy.
(Clip, old recruitment ad) He learns to be part of the team. He learns where he might fit in.
AG: A few years ago, a military general told me that if I wanted to understand innovation in the armed forces, I had to talk to a junior naval officer named Ben Kohlmann.
Ben Kohlmann: My grandfather was a World War II aviator, and my great uncle was an Air Force pilot who was shot down over Vietnam and spent five years in the Hanoi Hilton with John McCain and Jim Stockdale. And those stories infused my upbringing. And I wanted to be leading carrier battle fleets against whoever was attacking the United States.
AG: So I was surprised to hear Ben's colleagues call him a black sheep, a rabble-rouser, a troublemaker.
BK: "Troublemaker" is an amusing term for me, and I think my parents would get a kick out of that.
AG: Do you think you are one, though? Or you became one in the Navy?
BK: I think I became a troublemaker in the sense of challenging established wisdom.
AG: Ben may have been a sailor, but he didn't start out as a pirate.
BK: I was in a fraternity that was known for its parties but was the guy doing risk management on the outside, making sure nothing too crazy went down.
AG: Ben became a naval aviator, just like the pilots in "Top Gun."
(Music from "Top Gun")
Their call signs were "Maverick" and "Iceman."
BK: My call sign was "Professor," because I had this habit of reading long books like "The American History of Law" and listening to classical music.
AG: When Ben flew missions as a naval pilot, he had a huge amount of autonomy.
BK: Being a 27-year-old who's leading two $65 million jets with, you know, 400- or 500-pound bombs, this is an incredible amount of responsibility on a daily basis. You were the on-scene commander.
AG: But when Ben came back from overseas deployment, he started getting frustrated — frustrated that people were getting rewarded based on seniority instead of performance, frustrated that people were getting promoted for conformity instead of original thinking, frustrated that a field-tested combat pilot couldn't even have a beer on a Friday night without seeking approval from a senior commander.
BK: You know, there's five or six levels of approval. Even if the first four people say yes, it only takes one veto to kill an idea. And so that becomes very discouraging, and you stop caring to some extent.
AG: So Ben wrote an essay for a military news site. He explained his frustration and challenged the Navy to start supporting and promoting junior people with disruptive ideas. Piping up like that is sort of not done in the military.
BK: And I said some pretty intemperate things, if I'm reflecting on it. But it got the attention of a lot of senior officials who were aghast that I would write something like this.
AG: But some leaders were open to Ben's perspective. A Navy admiral was setting up something called a "rapid innovation cell." And he asked Ben to direct it. Now, to give you a sense for how slowly the Navy adopts new technologies, some of their computers are still running Windows 95.
(Windows 95 "Ta-da!" sound) Yet, over the next year, Ben's rapid innovation cell succeeded in getting 3-D printers installed on ships. They also tested a robot fish, affectionately named "Silent Nemo," for stealth underwater missions. It looks like a tuna, in case you were wondering. Ben fueled these advances with the same strategies we saw at Pixar. His first step was to recruit black sheep. Many of them had been disciplined for insubordination, like one guy who was fired from a nuclear submarine for disobeying an order.
BK: It ended up being one of the key innovation catalysts.
AG: How did you find them? Was that a signal that you were deliberately looking for? "Let me just find a bunch of people who are pissed off."
BK: Yeah. (Laughs) If you had the guts and the willingness to put your name onto an idea and publish it, that already set you apart from the crowd. And disruptors, while they're lone wolves to some extent, they also find each other, whether it's in the cubicle next door or the building across the way or even across the country.
AG: Second, Ben gathered them together to really listen to their frustrations, rather than squash them.
BK: One of the phrases that really makes me angry is when senior leaders say, "If you have a problem, don't tell it to me unless you have a solution." Oftentimes, junior people have lots of problems they don't know the solutions to, and they need guidance. This is untapped energy that's just waiting to be unleashed.
AG: Third, Ben rallied them around a common enemy, in this case, middle managers.
BK: We had this mismatch between senior officers, who really and truly wanted the crazy ideas, with those below them who had a mandate to slow those things down. And if we didn't get their approval, then we just jumped ahead of them to their senior, who usually was in our favor. And you can use the bureaucracy against itself in this sense, because people will always fall in line.
AG: In Ben's view, the lasting impact of his work was in demonstrating that this kind of innovation could be fueled from the bottom up, by black sheep inside the Navy. They planted seeds for dozens of other rapid innovation cells across the military.
BK: And so for me, the greatest success is the mindset that it created within a very bureaucratic organization: to take charge, to empower people to run with an idea and build a community of support around that and do it regardless of whether or not you had official support.
AG: Alright, as much as I love this whole recipe, I have one little problem with it. You can only use it once. If you succeed, people aren't underdogs anymore. That was Brad Bird's big challenge when it came time to make a sequel to "The Incredibles." This time, the team was stacked with hit makers. There was no common enemy. And they had three and a half years to make the film. It seems like it would have been harder to frame the crew as underdogs, given how remarkably successful the original movie was.
BB: Except that they took a year off of our schedule. And suddenly, we're the underdogs again. We had a hell of a mountain to climb that in many ways was taller than our first one.
NPG: The studio asked us to release the film a year earlier than what we had originally planned. A year is a lot. We tried to reestablish that underdog theme. And taking a year off the schedule sure helped.
AG: That's one way to turn superstars into underdogs again. But to make it work, the new challenge has to be meaningful or exciting, not just an arbitrary burden.
BB: You know, there's an attitude out there, a bunch of people with their arms folded, like, "This better be good." You know? Which doesn't help inspire you to do anything good. You know? But what is challenging is, can you take a year off the schedule and still come out with a great movie and come in on or under budget and, you know, drop the mic?
AG: The team had the fuel they needed. It became a just-manageable difficulty. "Incredibles 2" grossed over a billion dollars in its first two months alone, eclipsing the original film's total theatrical revenues. It was nominated for an Oscar and won the People's Choice Award for Favorite Family Movie.
BB: Yes, it's cool for adults and kids.
AG: That's what a bunch of black sheep can do.
And, oh yeah — it's now the highest grossing animated film in American history. Most importantly, it got six thumbs up from my favorite experts.
(Clip with kids) What was the first thing you said when we came out of the theater?
Kid 2: I want to see it again and again.
AG: How many times have you seen it?
Kid 1: Uh ... four?
AG: You've seen it four times? Why?
Kid 1: Because I like it.
Kid 2: I think it was twice in the same week.
AG: WorkLife is hosted by me, Adam Grant. The show is produced by TED with Transmitter Media. Our team includes Colin Helms, Gretta Cohn, Jessica Glazer, Grace Rubenstein, Angela Cheng and Janet Lee. This episode was produced by Dan O'Donnell. Our show is mixed by Rick Kwan. Original music by Hahnsdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown. Ad stories produced by Pineapple Street Media. Special thanks to our sponsors: Bonobos, Accenture, Hilton and JPMorgan Chase. Thanks to Bob Sutton for alerting us to "The Incredibles" story, and Jamie Woolf, Chris Wiggum, Rick Sayre, Alan Barillaro and Greg Brandeau, for sharing their perspectives and helping with interviews at Pixar, as well as Rich Walsh in the military. For their research: Jing Zhou and Jennifer George on dissatisfaction fueling creativity, Sim Sitkin and colleagues on stretch goals and Jane Dutton and Bob Duncan on the fat cat syndrome.
Next time on WorkLife.
(Clip) Amy Cragg: We finished, and I hear Shalane go, "That was hard. I taste blood." And then she goes, "That's so awesome." I was like, "You know what? I'm going to find out exactly what I'm made of here."
AG: Olympic rivals and pretty good friends, too. We'll explore how to get the best of both worlds.
Kid 1: Beep, boop, beep! Daddy, I'm in your studio!
Kid 3: Let's push buttons!
Kid 1: Is that a microphone?
Kid 3: I'm Adam Grant and I have no hair and my podcast is great!