#170: Avoid Consensus (Unless You Want Average Results)
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David: Thank you, Drift for making this possible. All right, young Adam, we are here. What are we talking about? We're back on Seeking Wisdom, the universe's only six star certified podcasts. It's unprecedented.
Adam: We're talking about what you wish you knew when you were younger going down this tweet storm. And so one of my favorites, which is avoid consensus, avoid conventional wisdom. That is unless you want average results.
David: Boom. That's an easy one to talk about. I like that one.
Adam: That's a strong tweet right there.
David: That's a strong tweet. I like that. Someone's been doing their little homework on headline writing at Drift, I can tell. We've had a lot of conversations about how to write punchy hooks and someone is paying attention. Whoever wrote that headline, hello, Gail.
Adam: Shout out to Gail. We love Gail.
David: All right, let's talk about this idea of avoiding consensus. I remember. Do you know Seth Godin?
Adam: Oh, yeah. Love Seth Godin, yeah.
David: The master, I love Seth Godin. I've been at Seth Godin mega fan for, it's an embarrassing number of years, almost 20 years, that long. And years and years and years ago, long before anyone had heard of Seth Godin, I don't know how I caught wind of him, it was a really long time ago. It was in, let's say probably somewhere around 2004, 2005, around that time. Young Adam was not even born at that time. But back then in 2004 or 5, Seth used to have these in- person workshops in New York City. And so I went down to New York City, went to one of these in- person workshops and he used to do it at a super old theater, naturally being Seth Godin. I went twice, two different years and there were probably 30 to 45 people there. That's it. I mean, tiny.
David: Totally awesome. And he would mesmerize me because not only is he the master of the riff, right? He could just go off and everything that he says is so right on, but in such simple terms that it blows you away, but he would have a question and answer from the audience. You could ask any question. And I thought for a second, I was like, maybe everything's canned. Right? Because this is so good, so much thought. Any random question that anyone would ask, boom, boom, just as amazing. So he blew me away. It was such an early time for the internet, for our type of business that I was the only one. I and one of my colleagues were always the only ones who had anything to do with internet related businesses. It was like furniture, shout out to the Schoenfelds, furniture, retailers, plumbing, all this kind of like crazy stuff, franchises, restaurants, stuff like that. There was no one there that was internet related. Anyway, the reason I went on that weird wild tangent was it has to do with today's topic because Seth Godin would always have this rant that I loved that I've lived ever since, which is you have to pick an edge. And so he said, you always have to pick an edge. You have to be on one end or the other end. You cannot be in the middle. And the middle is where there's consensus. The middle is the average. The middle is where things go to die. That is your most uninspired thoughts are in the middle because they are just the average of the average of the average. They're the least offensive to anyone. And so that's why you have to, if you want to have big ideas, Seth would always say you have to pick an edge. You have to be on one end of the spectrum, the other edge of the spectrum. And not everyone will like it. Lots of people will dislike it. But that's okay. Because one other thing I learned from this kind of concept was that it's easier, a lot of people like to pitch something or talk about an idea or anything, from an idea from an article to a company to whatever. And they don't want to receive, they don't want people not to like it. Right? Everyone wants to be liked, right? Liking bias, right? And so people want to be liked. And because of that, they'll average down the idea so that no one will say anything bad about it and no one will say anything great about it. They'll just say," It's good. That's a cool idea. Nice idea." But that's not where you want. You want to pick an edge because it's easier to get someone who tells you that they hate your idea, they hate your article, they hate everything you stand about to get them to the love side of the spectrum than it is to get someone that's in the middle to the love side, because the middle is indifference and indifference is the thing you want to avoid.
Adam: So why is that? Why is it easier to move people from hate to love than to move them from indifference to either side of that?
David: Because when you have something that's strong, that's polarizing, and obviously there's the love people, but then you have the hate camp. And they hate camp, you are striking an emotional cord with them. There's something about that, that is actually getting them to give a beep about the thing. They care, they're invested emotionally, even though the emotion is negative. People in the middle are indifferent. People in the middle or indifferent. They're not happy, they're not sad. It's meh, right? They don't really care. It's like it has no impact on them. So when you're in the middle, it's really hard to get someone to be emotional about something, someone to find the emotional cord to strike than it is someone who already has that emotional cord and it's they hate the idea, they hate whatever. But those people I found you can easily convert them to the love side of the spectrum if you spend time understanding what is it that makes them react so negatively? What is it about the ideas? Is it the way that you're communicating? Is it something inherent in the idea? But there's something in there that's polarizing to them, and that is good, not bad. Bad is the middle. Bad is consensus because again, the people who are indifferent, they don't care. And I always would say, from a startup standpoint and an idea standpoint, the death is indifference. That is where you will die as a company. If no one has any reaction, if you can't find a niche or a group that either hates the thing you're doing that equally hates and loves the thing that you're doing, then keep moving. Right? Because someone's got to hate it.
Adam: So you got to find some emotion, good or bad.
David: Yes. That's why every day I drink a glass of hater juice right here. See that? Look on YouTube. This is a glass haters' tears, and I drink it like this. Yum, yum.
Adam: It's a little salty, I've heard, the haters' tears.
David: Yeah. It's okay because we're going to make all those haters and their tears, laugh with joy.
Adam: I love it. So companies are notorious for seeking consensus, right? Especially as they grow, teams, organizations, committees, there's all this momentum toward consensus inside of companies. Can you talk about how you have thought about fighting that at Drift and how you are setting that up?
David: Question for you before I answer that. What do you call someone who's from Seattle? Seattlite?
Adam: Seattlite, you got it. First try.
David: First try, look at that.
Adam: Six stars.
David: Six stars only. A great businessman, a fellow Seattlite has talked about this, answered this question many a times, and that is Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, former CEO, now executive chair. And his answer for it and what he always wanted to avoid was consensus. And so his answer was to make sure that people have only one thing that they're responsible for, so there's single- threaded, to break problems into many small pieces. And that was represented not only in the hierarchy, in the product teams and any of the organizational teams, but also represented in the very nature of Amazon Web Services and their approach to microservices. Right? Keep breaking the problem down to the smallest unit so that someone could own it top to bottom and you would avoid consensus group thought and group thinking. And so there are many things and many lessons you can learn from that. And subtle plug, we are going to have the authors of Working Backwards on this here podcast, and that will be recorded soon. So make sure you don't miss that. That's one of my favorite books of 2021. If you don't know, Working Backwards is a book by former Amazon executives about exactly how they set up systems. It's the first one that you can actually see some of these systems and the thought processes behind what they've done. And so they're going to be on the podcast. And it's no coincidence, I believe, that there are lots of books and lots of people talk about Amazon now that Jeff is no longer CEO. What do you think about that? Because there was nothing before Jeff stepped down as CEO.
Adam: So maybe we're opening the flood gates on more books from insiders. Okay.
David: Yeah, because we had their books, we have Jeff Wilke out there now talking about how they did things, doing podcasts. You have lots of people at Amazon starting to talk now, and for decades, never a peep.
Adam: Right. Because we had The Everything Store, but he didn't actually get any exact commentary or anything like that.
David: Anyway, we're going to learn from them about how to set up exactly what Adam's asking here, how do you set up an organization to avoid consensus? Google did something similar in small teams, Facebook has done some similar things. Lots of companies have done a similar approach, which is a very open source, distributed systems type of a model of how do you break a problem down into small pieces to avoid consensus, to avoid group think. And so for us at Drift, we've done a very similar thing of, how do we keep breaking it down? And you'll never get to the point where it's perfect, so we have to keep breaking it down. But you have to do everything possible to avoid consensus. Apple brought us this very idea of the DRI, which is something that we've adopted, which is directly responsible individual, that's what that acronym stands for. And the idea is that for every project, for every decision, there is only one DRI, and that is the person that makes the decision. And the DRI is not just the person with the highest title in the room, it could be anyone that's been appointed to actually be the DRI of a project. And that person is the final person who will make the decisions. And that is, again, their approach to try to break consensus versus everyone in the room gets an equal vote and then we go with the least offensive version to everyone.
Adam: Yeah. I remember if I think back three years when I first joined Drift, seeing this show up, we'd have some big Slack thread growing and a bunch of people are jumping in and giving opinions and maybe you or Elias would just say," Hey, remember, seek feedback, not consensus," that little reminder. And it's like, oh yeah, this is Will's decision or this is Gail's decision. We're just going to go.
Adam: Super helpful.
David: Which is one of our leadership principles, Drift leadership principles. You can see them on our website, seek feedback, not consensus. Super important to us.
Adam: So pulling on that thread a little bit, I'm curious how, as the company has grown, we're a lot bigger, a lot more people and digital first. Has this gotten harder or what do you think it looks like today versus in the earlier days when maybe the founders could kind of chime in, remind people, or we could just do it that way. But now we have a lot more people, a lot more teams and we're digital.
David: Yeah. I think it's definitely gotten harder, in my opinion. The part that's kind of harder is we've tried to do it on a teaching standpoint from getting new people in this kind of line of thought. What's harder is no matter what process or system or mechanism or what have you, you set up within a company, you always have to have inspection, be part of that. And what's gotten harder in this process, especially being digital and scaling the team at the same time, is the inspection part. How do you make sure, how do you ensure, how do we have stewards who can go around and maintain that quality level? And again, Amazon has done something with the idea, from a hiring standpoint of the Bar Raiser, again, appointing these people who are specially trained to make sure that they're not regressing to the average in terms of hiring people. And you have this Bar Raiser thing. We don't have a concept like that yet on recruiting and we don't have a concept like that in some of our other processes now. And because of that and because of the digital nature and scale of the company, I think the inspection part has gotten a lot harder. What do you think?
Adam: I think that's right, the inspection, because so many more things are happening in so many more places. And they're also maybe less seen maybe if it's just digital or this Zoom, this Slack. I find the recording of meetings that we do actually helps a lot because you can watch the game tape, so to speak and see if we're falling into those traps.
Adam: And so if certain team leaders or people within teams can look back and say," Ooh, we were falling into consensus thinking there."
David: Yeah. I think now and going forward, it will be the times that we need to spend the most... Sorry, I'm saying that convoluted. But now is the time where we'll have to spend more of our energy fighting consensus to come in, because this is what naturally happens at all companies. This is, again, not to keep referencing Bezoisms, but this is day two thinking, right? And if you don't know that, go figure that out. That's an easy one. Day two thinking, Easter egg. That is the thing that we have to continue to fight and spend more time, be more vigilant against consensus creeping in. And every once in a while, I will stumble upon things that have creeped in that are consensus driven. I was just talking to someone the other day and they were talking about the review process, which as you know, I'm not very involved in the review process. And they were talking about calibration meetings. I was like," What is that?" And it was basically this idea within a team that they had a million people in a room and they were calibrating the ratings and peer reviews of people. And I was like," That sounds batshit to me, crazy." How many hours do people spend doing this? It's crazy. Again, what are we doing? We're averaging out, we're trying to average out, we're trying to normalize things and that's not what you want. So we need to fix that.
Adam: All right. So we have another leadership principle at Drift. That's innovate, don't invent. How do you square that with this avoiding consensus and avoiding conventional wisdom.
David: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so the idea behind innovate and don't invent is that for most things, for most common practices, especially when it comes to people and product and systems, first you should see is there a role model in the world today? Is there already a common practice for something and then examine it? And unless you can find a reason to create an entirely new process or new approach from the ground up, then you should try to take that process and either use it or that system or that custom and use it and maybe innovate on top of it. So build on top of that versus what we like to do all the time, which is ignore what's been done before, ignore the lessons of history, start from scratch every single time, make all the errors that the people who already have defined some process or some approach in the world have already gone through and learned nothing. And so it's less about consensus thinking and is more about respecting history and learning from history and figuring out when you should use this idea of inventing something, which is very important in our business and all businesses. It's very important to invent. But you can invent everything. And sometimes, we all get carried away and especially with digital companies, you want to reinvent every single thing, which you can't. There are very few things that you should spend your energy inventing and the rest of them, you should try to innovate on top of the pattern.
Adam: Right. So you don't actually have to invent things to avoid that unemotional middle. You can still get to the edge without having to make it up from scratch every time.
David: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think it's dangerous, this idea of inventing, and I've fallen prey to it many times, of wanting to invent everything from scratch and not take into account any of the lessons of history.
Adam: Yeah. I felt that too. Sometimes if I am trying to avoid conventional thinking, it's like," Oh, I have to invent and just work on the blank page," but that's not actually the case. Right? You can still go to those edges without having to reinvent the wheel, so to speak.
David: Yeah, or at the very least, start by examining history and trying to understand why do people do this thing or do whatever, this pattern, why do they do it? What have they tried before? What's failed? What succeeded? Why did they do this pattern? Sometimes you'll find a pattern that they do that makes no sense and then you should invent an entirely new one. And that's just an artifact of time. That happens a lot. But sometimes there'll be very legitimate reasons why a pattern is the way it is and then you should think twice before inventing in that category.
Adam: Love it. All right. Avoid consensus, avoid that unemotional middle. Be okay with people loving it and hating it. But you don't want the meh.
David: No. Avoid the mehs. That's a teacher right there.
David: Avoid the meh.
Adam: The meh, I think there's an emoji for the meh.
David: Yeah, there is. I use it all the time.
Adam: If you use that I know I'm wrong. It's got to be a hard," Hell yes" or a" Hell no." Yeah. That one is just start over.
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Adam: We're out. We're good, right?
David: We're out. All right.
Adam: We're done.
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Adam: That's a new one.
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You have to pick an edge, pick a side. You can't be in the middle. Because the middle is where there's consensus. This week on Seeking Wisdom, DC and Adam talk about why consensus is dangerous for companies – and why you need to avoid it at all costs.
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