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How to introduce the Tenth Man rule in your organization

The tenth man - Brad Pitt

“The interesting thing about being CEO that’s really striking is that you have very few decisions that you need to make, and you need to make them absolutely perfectly”. These are the words of Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo.

Yahoo isn’t exactly a young company anymore but they still have the same decisional problems any startup out here has. Few situations usually define the success of a company, or can determine its end. Does “the Tenth Man” ring a bell?

The Tenth Man is a negation exercise aimed to prevent teams from taking prejudicial decisions. It goes like this: if nine people with the same information arrive on the same conclusion, it is the duty of the Tenth Man to disagree. No matter how improbable it may seem, the Tenth Man has to start thinking that the assumptions of the nine are wrong.

The goal is avoiding the self-fulfilling prophecy. The Tenth Man forces the team to reflect on every possible implication of the decision, following the most improbable (but still possible) paths to prove the antithesis.

The Tenth Man rule became famous thanks to the movie “World War Z”, starring Brad Pitt and around 8.500 CGI zombies. In the movie, apart from running away from zombies, dodging zombies and trying to kill a few zombies, Brad Pitt finds the time to stop and talk to an Israeli military general. Brad discovers that the Israelis constructed a wall tall enough to contain the zombies out of Jerusalem long before the zombie infection spread worldwide. How could they foresee that?

The fictional Israeli general was appointed as the Tenth Man, and was in charge of proving to the rest of the council that a zombie invasion was possible. His conclusions pushed the rest of the team to accept such possible threat, leading to the wall construction despite the odds. (Spoiler! Little after, the zombies formed a zombie-wall and climbed the Israeli stone-wall killing everybody on the inside).

Despite the real efficacy of the measure, the idea was impressive. How visionary should you be in order to build something really expensive for an improbable catastrophic event?

But let’s go to the point:

Why should you introduce the Tenth Man rule in your organization

Here we have two interesting dimension that the Tenth Man method considers. The first one is the probability of the catastrophe. If the event is probable, everybody is naturally inclined to do something about it. The second dimension is the time span. How far can you see?

Tenth Man Risk Table

The table above shows a simple thumb rule to determine whether there is a weak spot in the usual risk analysis.

We tend to consider the clear threats that very probably will affect our business in the next months (red alert!). These threats are in the bottom part of the table. We get eventually so good at it, that most company can predict probable wind shifts several years in advance. Great services like WGSN and other trend forecasts helps us exactly in this.

But we also tend to keep an eye on the unlikely events that could alter the status quo. A very brave startup coming out of the blue, some unexpected financial winds, anything that could blow us out of the picture. This is the top left of the graph above.

Now let’s consider what is in the top-right: improbable events that are going to happen in the far future. Well, it doesn’t sound like something that we should we really care about, right?

Probably then we should ask Blockbuster why they refused to buy Netflix for $50 million (Netflix now has a market cap of $20 billion and Blockbuster died in 2010) or ask Kodak why they squandered every single opportunity it had to switch to digital.

It is in our human nature, and we need to be wise to act against it. Here is my recipe:

How to introduce the Tenth Man rule in your organization

  1. Pitch the idea to your top management. It will work better if you present two slides: Blockbuster and Kodak on the first one, Facebook buying Instagram and Whatsapp on the second one. Everybody wants to be on the second group.
  2. Set the invitation for two meetings with a six months time from each other
  3. During the meeting, brainstorm the most relevant technology advancement and market trends that could potentially affect your market. Keep a very open-minded spirit. A beer might help.
  4. Sort the threads by potential impact. Keep only the ones big enough to wipe your business out of the planet.
  5. Now it is time to do a clear distinction: if the threat is big and probable, wait no further. Go out and do something about it! In our exercise we are only interested in changes that are both far in the future and improbable.
  6. Depending on the results of the first part, it might make sense to consider more than one enemy. It is a trade-off between resources invested in the risk management and keeping more variables under control.
  7. Choose your Tenth Man. (A little secret: it can be the Eleventh or the Fifth. It depends on the size of the team.) It is indeed important that the selection is random. No volunteers nor abstained allowed.

The Tenth Man has now 6 months to study, investigate and forecast a scenario where the threat becomes real and extremely probable (even if it doesn’t seems so right now). The board should also keep an eye on the topic, in order to be prepared for the next step.

After six months the team sits together again and starts a confrontation. No matter how difficult or out of the commons sense the conversation might appear at a first glance, the Tenth Man will challenge all the conclusion that the rest of the team extracted from their study.

The goal should be more than clear at this point. Plant the seed in our deepest mind, like Leonardo di Caprio in Inception, and fight against our human nature. Sometime a simple defensive plan at the right time is a strong asset to preserve our existence.

Photo by Paramount.

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