A Growing Number Of CEOs Are ‘Talking To Strangers’: Here Is Why

Talking to a group of strangers offers industry captains new insights


Christian Stadler

2 years ago | 4 min read

Yesterday afternoon I had a long talk with Herr Hitler . ... and I feel satisfied now that each of us fully understands what is in the mind of the other.’

Having met Adolf Hitler in Berchtesgaden, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain believed that he had successfully avoided a war. A stark miscalculation as we know. In his latest book Malcolm Gladwell uses this story to highlight how difficult it is to talk to strangers. Too easily we misinterpret them. Even more so if they deliberately try to outfox us.

CEOs might draw the conclusion that it is better to rely on a trusted group of advisors. The drawback here is groupthink. Another example from the realm of world politics, the Bay of Pigs invasion, reminds us why. President John F.

Kennedy had gathered his inner circle to discuss whether they should try to oust Fidel Castro by instigating an invasion. Even though several participants had private reservations, none wanted to rock the boot. An all too typical outcome of like-minded people working in echo-chambers as we know today.

In a new book I co-authored with Julia Hautz, Kurt Matzler, and Stephan Friedrich von den Eichen, we outline a third option that is easily overlooked: talk to many strangers and find a way to synthesize the avalanche of information. The ‘wisdom of the crowd’ has proved to be robust against the bias of individual voices. Misinterpreting an individual stranger does not alter the overall outcome.

Many organizations have acknowledged this in the innovation space and a growing number of CEOs have recognized that talking to many—not just one or two—strangers is highly beneficial when it comes to big decisions. They reason the following way:

1)     I am Miles Davis, not Ludwig van Beethoven

These two music geniuses represent two very different worlds. Classical music sticks to a pre-planned ‘script’ that is the musical composition. Jazz compositions in contrast only provide rough guidelines, a framework that allows spontaneous and unpredictable improvisations. Masters like Davis turned these unanticipated musical challenges to their advantage.

Few companies operate in settings which are predictable these days. Hence, the ability to be agile even in regards to big decisions is obvious. That will only be possible if executives are sensitive to signals from the front-line, a group that consists of many ‘strangers’.

2)     I am a Prince of Serendip

In the Persian fairy tale ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ the protagonists make numerous happy discoveries while on a quest.

Companies stumble across many of these as well and can benefit greatly by embracing them. To do so, executives have to recognize that successful strategies are not reliant on a small number of big initiatives but on hundreds of actions instigated at different levels of the organization.

Companies like Haier have done this by giving individuals the mandate to start their own projects. Effective networks replace the bureaucratic machine for them—a key success factor according to Gary Hamel, a respected management thinker.

3)     I am not Simon Cowell

Fans of hit television show ‘America’s Got Talent’ are bound to think that leaders have to foster competition. Simon Cowell, one of the judges, certainly excels in this role. But even in the world of music and showbiz, most successful productions rely on the co-operation of diverse talents.

Adele’s Grammy-award-winning-album 21, for example, relied on over 100 musicians, producers, arrangers, and engineers.  Jim Abbiss, the producer, recalls how a classically trained cellist played musical excerpts to which Adele reacted, with an atmosphere of openness reigning.

CEOs have long thought that competition is our main motivator but evidence from psychology, economics, anthropology and evolutionary biology suggests that co-operation has been more important to our evolution.

The more complex a challenge, the more important is co-operation. And to avoid groupthink this requires the involvement of ‘strangers’ once again.

4)     I love pirates

In the 1980s John Muratore surrounded himself with a group of renegades at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Calling themselves ‘pirates’, they created an upgradable and scalable systems architecture to replace the old mission control system. They worked lunch-times, evening and weekends using a small grant and borrowed hardware.

To his credit legendary flight director Eugene Kranz understood that they might be up to something, asking flight controllers to give the kids a chance. Their input proved vital in the development of a new, more reliable and cost-efficient mission control system.

As Loizos Heracleous, Christina Wawarta, Steven Gonzalez, and Sotirios Paroutis argue, such renegades are important revitalizing forces in many organizations. Rather than seeing them as troublemakers, CEOs have to see them as rejuvenators.

5)     I need to carefully plan my interaction with strangers

While chance encounters with strangers occasionally inspire fresh thinking, CEOs cannot entirely avoid living in a bubble, even if they try. Almost everyone who meets them has an agenda. And most people they meet have passed numerous gates before, resulting in effective filters. So, the key question becomes how CEOs can access fresh and unfiltered information without being overwhelmed by the amount of data coming their way.

Two options present themselves. First, they can set up engagements in work-shop type settings which are carefully designed with a diverse group of people in the room.

Strong moderation will be needed to enable weak voices—meaning weak signals—to be heard. The second one is the use of crowd-sourcing tools such as prediction markets or wikis. Algorithms will help to tickle out the overall consensus as well as interesting anomalies.

Talking to strangers pays off

In the highly unpredictable world we live in, smart CEOs have found ways to engage with strangers. As our research highlights, this pays off in particular when companies open up their strategy process. Those CEOs who are more open to strangers are more likely to open up strategic initiatives and generate higher profits from them.


Created by

Christian Stadler







Related Articles