How To Be An Instigator

by · May 5, 20143 comments

It was ninth grade English class, first period, Layne Tackett, Pikeville High School, 1987. We were beginning a section on Shakespeare and Mr. Tackett, in his calculated and intimidating way said, pointing to a word he’d scribbled on the board, “This is doth. You will pronounce it ‘doth’ like moth. It is actually pronounced ‘duth’ like stuff. But you will mispronounce it. So let’s just get it over with and agree to say ‘doth’ so I don’t get aggravated that half of you are saying it correctly while the other half are not.”

I raised my hand.

My subsequent 2-3 minute soliloquy asking why we would say doth if he told us it was duth and duth was correct, so don’t say doth, say duth, that way he wouldn’t be upset for half of us saying duth and the other half doth and we wouldn’t want to upset our teacher, but if he insisted on us being wrong, then the class duth, er doth, do what the class duth, er doth do … made him turn and bang his head against the chalkboard.

Photo by Tyler Olson from ShutterstockInstigation is not just some jackwagon trying to be funny. Done properly, it can incite the kind of philosophic exercise that produces genius. In the time I’ve considered myself an instigator, I’ve been far more proud of the ideas others have as a result of debate and discourse than any I’ve had.

Instigating means making people think or react in a way that pushes their boundaries. It makes them slightly uncomfortable. It causes them to squirm. (Or bang their head against a chalkboard. Sorry, Mr. Tackett.) Sure, it may be that the instigation gets a chuckle — or gasp — out of people, but it helps the person in question and any witnesses or participants in the conversation to look at the world a little differently and exercise the part of their brain that longs for stability, predictability and calm.

Instigators are change agents.

Case in point, a recent brainstorming exercise was plodding along at an unexciting pace. I knew we needed instigation. So I suggested that we produce a serious of videos of people wearing t-shirts of questionable taste into churches equipped with hidden cameras for a YouTube series we would call, “Will It Offend?”

Certainly, that idea would never actually come to life — though if it did, it would certainly be a $1 million idea — but the intent wasn’t to suggest it would. The intent was to push the boundaries of the group to think beyond the mundane, the normal and the safe.

In 2008 on this very blog, I said that measuring the ROI of Social Media was impossible because doing so would imply you could assign a numerical value to a human relationship. While the hippie in me was coming out then, and philosophically I believe that statement to be true, I was throwing it out there more to help spur the discussions of ROI in social media that led to a lot of advancement in that area. (Little made by me, by the way.)

Perhaps you are longing for the big idea that will take your marketing plan to a new level. Maybe you’re being pressured from above to come up with the next big thing that will generate lots of revenue. Maybe you’ve got what it takes and the ability to write an incredible book, but can’t quite seem to put a finger on the right topic or slant.

The answer may not be to force yourself to come up with the big idea. It might be to stir the pot with others to see what that level of discomfort does for the thinking. Do so in these ways:

  • Ask a colleague what they think about a certain topic, then after listening, take the exact opposite view and challenge their assumptions.
  • Pitch your big idea to a boss, editor or co-worker, then midstream, change your mind and tear the idea apart. They’ll instinctively defend it and perhaps see pieces of it you don’t.
  • In a brainstorming session, insist on standing on the table, lying on the floor, or running in place. Invite others to join you.
  • Take your team to an improv show, or even better, an improv or comedy workshop.
  • Bring a Nerf gun or paper wads to the next meeting. For bad ideas, fire at the source. Invite others to fire back if yours are bad.
  • Suggest the most tolerable (for your workplace) yet inappropriate idea that will never make it past the group, but will extend their boundaries of thinking. Hint: Take a normal idea and just suggest it be done without pants.

The key is not to solve the problem. The key is to make people think. You’ll have to think outside your own box to come up with ideas. And, yes, you should try to ensure the ideas are safe for work — physically and from an HR perspective — but the more you let the same old, same old dictate the day, the less impressed you’ll be with the results.

And just so you know what an instigator in training looks like, I’ll tell you of my friend’s son Eli. The six-year-old guest at my Kentucky Derby Party is known for his off-the-wall and somewhat awkward first impressions, never prompted by his parents or siblings. After my (adult) friend Jenn said, “Hello, Eli! I haven’t seen you in forever!” Eli responded, “Your daughter is really bossy.” The first thing he said to Michelle was, “My dad farts at the dinner table.” And he no sooner had gotten out of the family car to run into the back yard to play when he darted over to me and said, “I don’t like the Pirates.”

Little shit.

But one hell of an instigator.

Image: Tyler Olsen from Shutterstock.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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