Communicating the Impossible with Think Wrong Author Greg Galle

Greg Galle joins Carrie to talk about his book, “Think Wrong,” and all the ways we can use our skills in communications to challenge the self-preserving nature of the cultures we create.

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Greg Galle comes to us this week with an approach to addressing culture that begins with our brains. We live with certain neurological realities, he says, “these are how we learn things, the synaptic connections that are created, and that has sort of trapped us.”

In his book Think Wrong, Greg argues that the way we solve problems is broken. The extent to which they’re broken depends on our cultural realities. “How do we disrupt culture?” He asks. “Because cultures are self-preserving and that’s great if you have a good, healthy culture, but if you’re trying to create change, or even trying to improve or strengthen a culture, there will always be a natural resistance.”

Greg is the co-founder of strategy firm Solve/Next. As author of the book Think Wrong, he celebrates over 30 years of experience thinking wrong about leadership, planning, and decision-making. His book is used around the world and across all sectors, from global corporations to individuals running local non-profits.

This week on the show, we talk to Greg about how we trick our brains, and how we trick our cultures and our communities, into exploring new possibilities and departing from the status quo. We’re so grateful to Greg for his participation this week as we all continue to move our Mission Forward.

Episode Transcript

Greg Galle: Cultures are self preserving. And that’s great if you have a good healthy culture, but if you’re trying to create change or even trying to improve or strengthen a culture, there will always be this natural resistance. So thinking wrong is really about how do we trick our brain and how do we trick our culture, our communities into exploring new possibilities, into departing from the status quo, into exploring that bold path, that sort of most aspirational reality and then finding practical ways to build that as opposed to saying, "Well, that was fun, but right now we’re just going to go back to the status quo."

Carrie Fox: Hi folks, and welcome to this episode of Mission Forward, where each week we bring you a thought provoking and perspective shifting conversation on the world around us and the role that communications and communicators play in helping us make sense of the world. I’m Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners, a social impact communications firm and certified B corporation.

Carrie Fox: Today I’ve got someone on the show that believes the way we solve problems is broken and I cannot wait to hear more from him on that. Greg is the co-founder of strategy firms, Solve Next and the author of Think Wrong. He has over 30 years of experience thinking wrong about leadership, planning and decision-making. And his book is used around the world and across all sectors of society from global corporations to individuals running local nonprofits.

Carrie Fox: Greg, as you know, we set this up earlier today. In this season’s show we are digging in at this really unique intersection of design and communication and power. I’m going to have you start. If you could tell me a little more about you and your work and what led you to do the awesome work you were doing today.

Greg Galle: All right. Well, thanks for the introduction and the invitation to the conversation. First of all, it’s great to be with you. That’s a good question. You know, the human side of that story would be, I was a kid who liked to draw a lot and I liked working on complex problems. Somehow I was torn between whether I would go to law school. My other worked at Stanford Law School. So I was around a lot of lawyers as a kid and somehow that was sort of appealing to me but I also I really liked art but didn’t think there was any way to make a living doing that.

Greg Galle: And I was fortunate to have this high school art teacher who took us to design schools and exposed us to the fact that there is actually a career path there. So I ended up going to Otis Parsons and I studied communication design of all things under Sheila Levrant De Bretteville who was one of the founders of the Women’s Center in LA. I discovered this world where I could deal with the complexity that was appealing to me in the legal world of complex problems and trying to… I was raised a little bit of a hippie kid liberal, card carry bleeding heart liberal. So I liked the idea of being to do work that would change things for the better.

Greg Galle: And so there’s this weird intersection of you can use communication, you can use art, you can use design and you can use your brain to actually make a difference. And so that’s how I ended up in this world. I’ve worked in every really aspect of design from very traditional design studios, early days of graphical user interface, design and user experience design, to working in inside a big corporation, a global corporation and had all kinds of experiences that showed me that there was a real opportunity to use creativity for a higher purpose to unlock the ingenuity that people who don’t see themselves as creative actually have in them. They’re naturally born with this and our systems of education and our workplaces kind of push that out of them.

Greg Galle: So getting people to rediscover that and giving them some tools for doing that. And then the one time I did work client side from which was from ’92 to ’99 it taught me that I was unemployable, that I didn’t want to work in a corporation, that I found it too oppressive. So when I came back from the UK at the end of that stint of work to the US it was the height of the dot-com boom and a really just set out on my own with some partners to do this.

Greg Galle: So that’s a little bit of the kind of story, but it really is born out of being this kid who likes to sit and draw.

Carrie Fox: You and I have so much in common. Already I’m realizing it’s very similar to my story of having this aha moment that you could in fact do communications for good and make a living out of it. I remember so many people early on saying when they heard I was going to start an agency that focused in on supporting nonprofits and foundations, they said, "Good luck. You’ll be out of business in a year. There’s nothing there for you," which is not at all the truth. There is so much good that can be done in the communications space.

Greg Galle: Yeah, it is something that I think is generally undervalued, so people have that perception. The work that we do with nonprofits and foundations is often the most meaningful work that we do and it makes the biggest difference. So from a real capital markets perspective, it ought to be rewarded most highly. It’s not always, but you can find that.

Carrie Fox: You know what’s so interesting though is what you all have developed in Solve Next and Think Wrong gets at a lot of the pieces that we cover on the show, which is how we break away from the status quo. So as organizations or as leaders come into organizations, so many times the conversation is, well, this is the way we’re going to do it because this is the way that it’s done and we’ve seen a lot of that change in the last few years for sure, but you all really take this on. On a daily basis you’re challenging people to look differently at the status quo.

Greg Galle: Absolutely. So Think Wrong the book and the problem solve approach is really about how do we disrupt both the way that our brain works, the neurological realities that we deal with, how we learn things, the synaptic connections that are created and that trap us in these ruts of how we think about things and how we solve things and also how do we disrupt culture because cultures are self preserving and that’s great if you have a good healthy culture, but if you’re trying to create change or even trying to improve or strengthen a culture, there will always be this natural resistance.

Greg Galle: So thinking wrong is really about how do we trick our brain and how do we trick our culture, our communities into exploring new possibilities, into departing from this status quo, into exploring that bold path, that most aspirational reality and then finding practical ways to build that as opposed to saying, well, that was fun but now we’re just going to go back to the status quo.

Greg Galle: So our work really has not been around how do we fine tune or super optimize something, but how do we create positive disruptions? How do we create positive change?

Carrie Fox: Greg, when folks hire you, do they know what they are hiring you for or do they think they know and really it’s something else?

Greg Galle: Oh, it’s almost always the latter, it’s almost always they think they know, but…. So that comes out of discovery. First of all, it’s not something that people purchase a lot. This kind of service it’s not like going through the drive-in at McDonald’s, you don’t buy it a lot. So when you do, it feels a little risky like I’m stepping into this territory that’s maybe a little foreign. That gets back to your point of people doing things that they know, repeating cycles, feeling safe and comfortable with something.

Greg Galle: So somebody’s standing up and saying, "Hey, I’m willing to step into the unknown and try something new." Usually that means that they or their organization is at a point of significant enough discomfort that they have to try something new. It’s unusual. We do have clients who are really successful and they just keep setting the bar higher and higher. We have one client who we were helping them with a recruiting problem. They go to the top 10 business schools in the world. They make the top 10 candidates at those business schools an offer and they get seven of them.

Greg Galle: And we said, "Well, do you want to improve on that? That’s pretty good." And they said, "Well, we want to get nine of them." I was like, "Well, why aren’t you going after 10? They said, "We’ll always lose one to private equity because they’ll just offer them more money than we ever would, but we want to get the top nine.

Greg Galle: So that’s an example where they’re very secure and very confident but they wanted to do even better. But usually what you find is that an organization that is at a point of discomfort or dissatisfaction, that’s acute enough that they have to change. So they’re more willing to try things that they haven’t tried before. And people don’t always realize that when they come in. Sometimes you have to create some clarity for them to understand that there should be a greater level of dissatisfaction than there is, that they’re feeling happy in this status quo but maybe there’s an impending inflection point that they ought to be aware of and that they ought to make a change before they hit that inflection point.

Carrie Fox: Yeah. Yeah, that’s good. And it actually speaks to this framework that you’ve got of the difference between solve now and solve next, always be looking ahead to what’s to come. And I’m curious. If you think about the last few years, what are people coming to you to solve for and has that changed over time?

Greg Galle: Yeah, it has changed. When we first started doing this, we were working with a lot of leadership teams around. Because John Bielenberg who’s one of our co-founders and Mike Burn and we all co-authored the Think Wong book, we did a lot of work in the brand space. And in the brand space, people were think… I boil it down to these simple questions of who are you, what do you do? Why does that matter and how do you go about doing it and how well are those things understood?

Greg Galle: So we did a lot of work with leadership teams around answering those questions and thinking about how does that actually manifest itself in your organization. Now being situated in the San Francisco Bay area we had our share of tech clients and tech companies but we found ourselves expanding beyond product and service questions to organizational design and to what kind of impact would we have on society. What’s the value beyond monetary gain that we’re trying to create in the world?

Greg Galle: That persists. Certainly within the last two years we’ve had out of the moment that we had as a country with George Floyd’s murder, there was a renewed interest in dealing with issues of equity and inclusion and diversity. So that has definitely spiked in terms of clients who are coming to us and saying, "We need to be paying serious attention here." Having gone through the pandemic, you talked about people maybe became more open to trying things. The pandemic forced us into this situation where anything that we felt certain about, any status quo was just thrown out the window. We’re all operating in this world of uncertainty and no status quo.

Greg Galle: We are now seeing clients, unfortunately with Delta it sort of stalled, but they’re saying, "Okay. As we go back now to the workplace, as we’re going come out of the pandemic, what do we want to leave behind and what did we discover during the pandemic that we want to keep and move forward? So there’s a little bit of this. We’re we’re finding a lot of clients are looking at what are our ways of working? What are our expectations of our people that we had before the pandemic? What changed during the pandemic? What did we love? What did we hate about pre pandemic? What do we love? What do we hate about pandemic?

Greg Galle: What are we going to take into the future with us and how is that going to look and how’s that going to find its way, not only to our people, to our workforce, but to our customers, our clients, our partners and our ecosystem? So we’re seeing a lot of attention paid there. And I think there’s an intersection between that and the diversity, equity and inclusion work. There’s a big intersection, which is if we want to create a sense of belonging then we really need to not just give lip service to being inclusive and we need to create conditions where that can exist.

Carrie Fox: Right. There was a great story that, well, not great, but great outcome, I guess, that came out during the pandemic around South by Southwest. And for years the advocates in the disability community have been asking South by Southwest to make their programming virtual. And they would always say, "No, can’t do it. Too expensive, too hard. Can’t do it." You probably remember this. And then COVID hit and they’re like, "we’re making it virtual." And so suddenly it worked right. So it is how we are showing up. If we cared about equity, we would’ve done it all along versus now it matters to us.And so we’re going to act on it.

Greg Galle: It became a necessity. I laugh not because of South by Southwest but we were saying the same things, which was when you do this work you’ve got to do it in person. That’s the highest quality way is to do it in person. And I will acknowledge that when we do the work we do in person there are some things that are difficult for other abled people. So some who might be in a wheelchair is going to have a difficult time physically doing some of the work that we do up on posters with posts-its and that kind of thing or somebody with a vision impairment or somebody who has a hearing impairment or as we discovered doing some work with a well-known local computer and telephone maker, they have a lot of engineers who are somewhere on the spectrum for autism.

Greg Galle: And you know what’s really uncomfortable for somebody who’s on the spectrum for autism, it’s being in a room full of people working at boards the way that we do. So we quickly pivoted out of necessity to building a set of virtual tools that would enable us to do this work. And we discovered a whole bunch of things about the quiet voices that weren’t being heard now being able to participate, people who might be other abled having an ability to engage in a way that they weren’t able to engage before. So it unlocked something for us. It was because we were forced to do it.

Greg Galle: Prior to it, there’d been this, "well, we’re serving the majority of the need and it’s very infrequent that we encounter these other situations. It’s on our list and we’ll get to it but we didn’t. So that’s been a kind of a happy outcome and one that was probably long overdue.

Carrie Fox: And that reminds me of a couple things. There is a great book that my team knows I talk about a lot called Digital Body Language and helps us understand there are a lot of benefits to Zoom and virtual meetings but you’ve got to know how to use the tool in a way that it doesn’t play to the power of the folks who are more comfortable in this setting, the folks who are naturally going to be the first to respond, so as the facilitator knowing how to create that space where everyone is involved.

Carrie Fox: The other piece that makes me think is we often say that it’s about not designing for the majority but designing for the margins. And it sounds like that’s what you all do too, right? When you really push to say, who are the folks who are on the outside of the room, why are they on the outside of the room and how do we make sure that they are included and welcome as well?

Greg Galle: Yeah, this concept of operating at the edge. I like the edge better than the margins because people shouldn’t be marginalized. They’re at these different edges. There’s an exercise we almost always run when we’re doing a workshop with clients and it’s called matters most. So given the problem space we’re operating, who matters most to you? And they identify that. And we might come up with dozens or hundreds of different types of people who matter to them and then say, "Okay. Of those, who matters most?" And then of those people who matter most to you, who matters most to them?

Greg Galle: We’ll get this convergence on who matters most by doing some dot voting or some plus voting if we’re doing something virtual to create focus. But while we do is say that’s interesting, we now see where the status quo is or who matters to you. I’m really interested in those cases. I’m interested in somebody who only got a single dot or one plus as opposed to who’s got 20 on them. Why did they get a plus? So we’ll often ask people when they’re voting for in that situation, put one dot on the persona, obviously we have to pay attention, we can’t ignore, and then put two, your other two dots, on somebody who’s totally unexpected, you haven’t been thinking of but you think we really ought pay attention to. So you sort of force them to the edge. You force them to look at that.

Greg Galle: And you’re going to come up with a much more unexpected and compelling solution if you start designing or building from those perspectives. If you start looking at the problem from this other place then from where everybody looks at the problem.

Carrie Fox: Do you find that folks are then willing and ready to act on that? Because I’m sure in some cases that would be a pretty large departure from their strategy.

Greg Galle: Well, that’s an interesting question and it comes back to your question of what are people coming to us and asking us to work on now. In addition to the things that I outlined, the DEI focus and what are our new ways of working, we have been also working with clients around this idea of a system of innovation. What does a system of innovation look like? And that’s in large part because people really like from think wrong, they like the idea generation phase, "Hey, we’ve come up with these concepts that are really disruptive." And they’ve been asking us for several year what’s next? What’s next? And we thought it was just a rhetorical question, but they’re literally asking for help like, what do we do next?

Greg Galle: So part of this is putting in place a system of innovation and an approach to making small bets so you can test assumptions and learn and do what we call discovery driven development. And that takes a lot of the risk out of what feels like, wow, you’re really asking us to go outside of what’s known and comfortable for us. You’re asking us to do something that is truly disruptive and it’s going to require real change. It’s like, yeah, but there’s ways for us to test our most crucial assumptions rather inexpensively and rather quickly to build the confidence and to then make decisions about where we’re going to invest our resource, where we going to invest our time. Will this really make a difference?

Greg Galle: It’s also super important in that work to bring the people that you think you’re designing for into the process so you’re designing with them. It’s kind of obvious, I’m a middle aged white guy. So I’ve lived a particular life of privilege and have a particular perspective which blinds me to a whole bunch of things. So in order to be able to see the problem and in order to be able to imagine a solution that’s going to be relevant to somebody who’s not me, I need to bring them in the room. I need to bring other people and other perspectives. And there’s a ton for me to learn from them.

Greg Galle: So I think that’s really important in terms of the adoption. You don’t want to take all the risk out because if you take all the risk out, you take the opportunity out. So you need to make progress in a measured way so you can become more certain of the solution so it becomes less risky over time as you learn and you need to engage.

Greg Galle: To me, I always emphasize, I want as diverse a group as I can get. I want diversity on every imaginable spectrum. I want gender. I want sexuality. I want lived experience, socioeconomic. I want ethnic or racial. I want seniority or newness in an organization, any and all the dimensions that we can possibly get, I want those and then I want to create smaller teams that each team is its own little diverse universe because together that group is going to conceive of something they can’t possibly conceive of on their own because they’re going to bring together these different ways of looking at the problem.

Greg Galle: They’re going to think about the problem and the solution as being this emerging three dimensional form. And everybody has a different view on that form, but collectively they see it in a way that they can’t see it on their own.

Carrie Fox: How long do you think it takes for that kind of innovation to happen? You’re putting people in a room together to start these conversations, people who don’t typically work together, who maybe don’t typically even spend time with one or another and they’re being given these big questions. I suspects sometimes it works really well and sometimes it’s hard to get it going. But when do you think the magic really starts to happen with really diverse groups like that?

Greg Galle: It can happen really quickly. I think the question is how do you sustain it over time? What we found is you can pretty quickly create the conditions for these diverse teams to really work well together and to work quickly together. Some things you can do to sort of flatten status and create a more collegial human to human connection very quickly.

Greg Galle: we’ve run sessions, the half day, full day sessions where you really by the end of the day you’re just shocked by what’s come out of them. The question then is how do you sustain that? That comes back to this need for a system that is going to move things forward. You’re going to go test assumptions that you made. You’re going to validate whether you’re right about the pain or the problem or the friction you’re trying to address. You’re going to validate whether or not this solution actually is meaningful and useful and would be used by the people that you’re creating it for. And that takes time and that takes a rigor that has been missing from the design.

Greg Galle: I just call it the creative realm because there’s this mythology of who’s creative and who’s not creative. And the mythology is you got to be a Steve jobs, wire rimmed glasses and black turtleneck kind of person or crazy Elon Musk type to be considered creative. It’s like, no, they were extremely capable of being disruptive but everybody has within them the ability to be creative and you can apply rigor and management to that to allow that to show itself repeatedly over time as opposed to these flash in pan moments of brilliance that people imagine or what’s behind a lot of what we consider innovations in the world.

Carrie Fox: Yeah. So let’s zoom out, we’re wrapping up here, and think about… You have learned and applied so much through the book, through the clients that you work with. Not everyone will have the amazing opportunity to work with you. And so if you were to zoom out and think about organizational leaders who are listening right now who are saying, gosh, my organization is stuck, how much I would love to be able to have a spirit and a culture of innovation. What are some of the things that you feel organizations could be doing, how they start that process, even some of the criteria that helps them get ready for this?

Greg Galle: Yeah. So people get very excited about solutions and they don’t spend enough time on problem finding. The reason why many initiatives fail is because they got excited by a technology or a trend, digital transformation. We need to do a digital transformation. Well, what is digital transformation? Why are we doing it? What does that mean? What are the problems we’re trying to solve through digital transformation? And that means connecting back to individuals, not to an entity or a category of things, but saying these kinds of people in these kinds of situations in this role or this situation in a community, in an organization, in an enterprise, whatever, they are feeling this pain and the pain manifests itself emotionally. They have these things that they’re dealing with.

Greg Galle: There are some root causes of that and we need to get clear about what those root causes are. We need to then look at those things and say, do they actually align with our goals and our strategies as an organization? And we need to then start to build solutions from there. So that ability to be empathetic, that ability to discover where that pain or where those problems are or where those opportunities actually lie is incredibly important. That requires in an organization you need representation. It cannot be the acronym from our military client’s bog set, bunch of guys sitting around a table or a bunch of white guys sitting around a table.

Greg Galle: You need diversity on your teams. That comes through that representation. You need to actually practice real listening skills. You need to learn how to hear because you will never understand what the pain or the fix of the problem is if you’re not actually doing that. And you need to invite and spend real meaningful time with multiple perspectives and appreciate that around any particular problem or opportunity there are going to be multiple perspectives and all of those perspectives have some element of truth. Every one of those perspectives, even if you don’t agree with it, you have to agree that there’s some element of truth to it and you have to identify what’s that element or truth and then how do we build from there?

Greg Galle: And then I think that it’s important for organizations to reach agreements at a team level and at an organizational level about how are we going to show up, how are we going to work together in a way that actually is productive and healthy and how do we demonstrate appreciation for each other in the work that we do? Because those are the things that actually motivate and inspire people to keep showing up and working on hard things, is that, hey, we’ve agreed why we’re doing this. We’ve agreed how we’re going to go about doing it and we’ve actually shown appreciation for each other and the fact that we show up with different perspectives and different knowledge and different experiences, but together we’re building something that we couldn’t do without one another.

Greg Galle: So short answer, start with problem finding, pain finding, problem finding, not with "I’m excited about a technology or a trend." And then there’s this more humanistic side of it about how do we assemble ourselves to do that work.

Carrie Fox: Boy, you wrapped a lot into that answer, which is incredible. Clearly why you are so good at what you do. What I’ll hold onto, there many that I’ll hold onto, but two things I’m going to lift back up. Albert Einstein’s quote. He said, "If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d take 55 minutes on the problem and five minutes on the solution," which definitely resonates here.

Carrie Fox: And then also this idea of listening, including listening to what you don’t want to hear and I think that can often be the hardest for organizational leaders who they’re hearing certain things really loud and clear but the things they don’t want to hear are often the things that people don’t tell them because they’re the hardest ones to say. So the hardest truths are the hardest to hear. And once you hear those, you can in fact really advance on that big picture purpose.

Greg Galle: Absolutely. We have a particular exercise that we do. It’s a way of receiving feedback. We call it SASU, which stands for share and shut up. What will happen, a team will be working on something they share and then they actually have to be quiet and they’re going to get feedback. And we ask for feedback in a very specific way. I like, I wish, I wonder. And then open ended questions. So you shared this thing with I like this about it. I wonder this about it. I wish this about it. I have a question about it. And as a team or a leader, you don’t respond with anything but thank you. You take notes and then you go and you go, okay, what did we hear and what do we think we need to act on? What do we need to do?

Greg Galle: What that does is it takes us out of that defensive posture that we’re in. Whenever we present an idea, we immediately go into a defensive posture because we’re trained to know people are going to try to disassemble that idea. They’re going to start to take it apart. We just get trained to do that. Critical thinking is not destructive thinking but that’s actually what people think it is. You’re going to share something with me and I’m going to destroy it. That’s the nature of the relationship. If instead I’m going to share something with you and then I know that you’re going to give me feedback in this particular form, I’m going to take notes and then I’m going to decide whether that was useful and relevant and do I need to act on and what am I going to ignore? I didn’t spend any energy defending my idea and you got to give me all this feedback without being interrupted by my trying to tell you why you’re wrong and why I’m right.

Carrie Fox: Yeah, One of the best practices in parenting a teen too by the way. that will also work.

Greg Galle: It turns out that there’s a whole bunch of things that work with young kids and teens. It gets progressively more difficult with adults.

Carrie Fox: Yeah, right.

Greg Galle: My wife teaches first and second grade. So it’s like, oh, you do that. I do that too with adults, but they don’t listen.

Carrie Fox: You can always count on the kids.

Greg Galle: Yes.

Carrie Fox: Well Greg, oh my gosh. That went fast. That was so much fun. Thank you for letting me pepper you with some questions and having so many incredible insights to share with us. You said it would be so, right, 20 minute power conversation.

Greg Galle: Super fast. Okay. Yeah, unfortunately I can talk all day. But it has been a real pleasure to chat with you and thank you for the of questions as well. It’s always nice to have a conversation that’s intriguing and interesting and revealing.

Carrie Fox: And that brings us to the end of another episode of Mission Forward. Thank you so much for joining us this week.

Carrie Fox: Mission forward is produced with the support of Nimra Haroon and the Mission Partners team in association with True Story FM. Engineering by Pete Wright. Music this week is by Space Doves and Josh Leake. If your podcast app allows ratings and reviews, I hope you’ll consider doing just that for our show. But the best thing you can do to support Mission Forward is simply to share the show with a friend or colleague. Thanks for your support and we’ll see you next time.

This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they're all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.

Carrie Fox

Carrie Fox is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and Certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways.