Looking to inspire and stimulate an NPS programme to reach a new level is hard. It is hard to change an organisation, and it is hard to challenge yourself. But we can learn from a rich history of papal buffoonery, politics, linguistics and beautiful photography.

One of my favourite quotes is by actor and director Robert Redford. “Do you think the earth was created by an accountant? Fire and chaos are what started everything. Then order came on top of that.” For Redford, creating something new (or change for that matter) is not about optimising what’s already there, staring at numbers and processes. It’s first and foremost a disruptive, provocative and turbulent defiance of assumed truths that leads to novel insights.

History is littered with examples of illustrious men and women challenging beliefs and sparking new thinking due to their unique creativity, intelligence, the setting in which they found themselves and their perseverance. Something not easily copied. 500 years ago Pope Leo X (1513-1521) gave us a means to systematically evoke such disruptive thinking.

By all means Leo X was an interesting man. He is said to have had a pleasant voice, cheerful temper, was accomplished in humanist studies and literature, and made Rome a centre of European culture and learning. However, he also notoriously indulged in masquerades, buffoonery and other irresponsible frivolous and lavish pursuits. The subsequent expenses and immoderate personal luxury quickly forced him to borrow large sums from bankers and princes and led to him pawning palace furniture and even statues of apostles. Consequently he escaped a plot by cardinals to poison him, and his overall lavish lifestyle inevitably sparked the Reformation. In the words of historian David Hume Leo X was without a doubt “one of the most illustrious princes that ever sat on the papal throne”. And he is still relevant to us up till today.

Leo X recognised the importance of contrasting views and novel or extraordinary opinions. He very well knew bringing in other voices brought the room alive and made people pay attention.

Under Leo X this concept saw its way in the canonisation process of the Roman Catholic Church. It would appoint individuals to be sceptical, to withstand being carried away, to look for flaws in argumentation or evidence and generally to argue against a candidate listed for sainthood.

That ‘opposite promoter’ was the promotor fidei (Promoter of the Faith) and is better known today as the advocatus diaboli or, the Devil’s advocate.

The idea behind this name was that the Devil didn’t want another saint canonised. It proved to be a popular approach. Over the years the concept evolved to the notion that one Devil’s advocate is just not good enough and a whole Devil’s bar of advocates is necessary. Especially in risk-adverse organisations or endeavours where extreme efforts are taken to prevent mistakes this can be called for. Like politics. In the late 18th century the third U.S. president Thomas Jefferson used ‘Moot Courts’ to prepare for especially difficult debates with opponents as he wrote in 1788. The word moot is actually an Old Norse word for both meeting and debate. But consider how much of a sparkle that name has. Not really, right?

Christian Morgenstern, a German poet, wrote that ‘seagulls all look like they are called Emma.’ Silly and funny of course, but with his nonsense poetry Morgenstern touched upon the idea that sometimes linguistic labels just perfectly match what they describe (do read the New Yorker’s very interesting article ‘The Power Of Names’). And yes, the rather dull name of ‘Moot Court’ invokes at best a scenery of mooing cows, slowly grazing and not in a particular hurry. 

To fire up the process of people arguing against you, making it more hectic, disruptive and turbulent either the U.S. military or NASA (they contest who coined the term) came up with the ominous sounding ‘Murder Board’ in the 1970s. Try saying that without using a deep and menacing voice. This was a group of subject matter experts that was “charged with the responsibility to slam a candidate or proposer of an idea up against the wall with tough questioning.” To this day in U.S. politics these boards are used in preparing for debates and hearings.

So arguing against for the sake of it. Done well, it can be highly effective and I recommend it for any (NPS) Programme around to adopt it. It sharpens and challenges you. It helps you unearth assumptions and – if the role is acted out very well – inspire you with surprising insights or comparisons. It will enthuse you to look for novel solutions that will ultimately boost your programme to a new level.

It’s just… not that easy to play this role right.

More often than not the role or roles go to insiders. They’re part of the team, or at least of the company. And even worse, more often than not the roles rotate amongst the members of the team or department. And that’s a problem. Even if the appointee puts office politics aside – withholding criticism even though it is constructive – they (and therefore you) remain confined in the same thinking that is simply made up by the dominant expertise and culture of your team, business line and organisation. It doesn’t help either that the time set apart for such challenging is limited, the challenge must be completed in the allotted time. The sense of closure is a highly valued corporate character trait, but just not helpful in this case.

So appointing someone from the inside is not a quick substitute for the inspiration that you’re after. And it will most likely not give you Redford’s fire, disruption, turbulence and the creative outburst you are after to propel your programme to new heights. It is advocated often (e.g. in the outstanding ‘The Weird Rules of Creativity’ by Robert I. Sutton, ‘Originals’ by Adam Grant, ‘A Whole New Mind’ by Daniel H. Pink, ‘The Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell) to bring in people from the outside, and preferably with the most offbeat backgrounds you can find. And I fully agree. It can be incredibly enriching to hear what for instance a radiologist, a travel photographer or a children’s book illustrator have to say about the plans, ambitions and challenges you have with your (NPS) programme.

The diversity of their experiences and approaches will guarantee you a blaze of new ideas. I did exactly that, and it led to some powerful understanding and metaphors I still use today.

Imagine sitting in the audience and only seeing a pitch-black slide showing the number ‘90’ in bright white. After a pause, long enough for people to start feeling uncomfortable, you then get to hear the story behind it. An utterly compelling story by a travel photographer (the talented Robert van Sluis, do check out his amazing work) about a Bedouin girl in Jordan who travelled through the searing heat of the desert for ninety minutes with him to his hotel for him to refill his supplies and to be able to print off the polaroid he had taken of her and her brother and sister. As a Bedouin she was not allowed in and had to wait outside in the heat. Then, after gratefully accepting the print they said their goodbyes and she headed back. For another ninety minutes through the scorching desert. During the story the beautiful photos the photographer took, lavish and rich in colour, were shown. Even more emphasizing the contrast with the first and again the final pitch-black slide just showing the number ‘90’ again. You could hear a needle drop. The audience was captivated. And no one looked at that number again as just a functional number. They all heard a story and felt the weight of the meaning of that number in their stomachs.

NPS is by nature a number and a formula, and it is this inherent pitfall that makes it so difficult for any NPS Programme to be compelling and lively. To steer people away from the functional scores towards an empowering and engaging programme that inspires customers and employees alike is the greatest challenge. Having an outsider with such an offbeat background illustrating the difference between a functional score and an emotional one through such a moving story was highly effective and couldn’t have been achieved by anyone from the inside.

So let’s hear it for the disruptive, provocative and turbulent ones. The ones from the outside. The ones with unique viewpoints, inspiring stories and analogies. The offbeat backgrounds that show us our assumed truths and challenge us to do better.

As Redford says it is fire and chaos that starts everything. So it is up to us to set the stage, and be brave enough to invite someone from the outside to ignite it.