We’re not buying that leaders need a cognitive x-factor to innovate. More on that later. But bringing in mavericks and moonshot thinkers to spark a company’s entrepreneurial renaissance? That’s spot on.
We’re not just talking about those we’ve coined Rare Breeds, the dangerous, defiant, different individuals who turn “vices” like obsession and audacity into career virtues. They’re the charismatic megafauna of the innovation ecosystem, but not its only players. Just as important are more conventional folks with exceptional talents like the industrial designer who thinks around corners, the problem-cracking electrical engineer, the lawyer who relishes risk.
But let’s not call them disruptors. Disruptive individuals come into an organization and invoke culture carnage. They break stuff and show up with a smirking, smartest-kid-in-class vibe and automatically throw shade at everyone else’s work. They sow chaos. You don’t need people who will tear down everything you’re doing. You need people who will question your assumptions, challenge your beliefs, and discover new ways to build on what you’re already doing.
The innovators you’re looking for are strong medicine for innovation-hungry organizations because, despite their fierce contrarian minds, they can excel on teams—and we’re in a golden age of teams. “Individual oddballs might be the catalysts for step-change—consider how Einstein’s unpopular insistence that energy and mass had some connection transformed science—but it requires teams to embrace them, enhance them, and implement them,” said Peter Fisk, author of Gamechangers. “Today’s most effective innovation lies in ‘extreme teams,’ who have both the stretching challenge and psychological safety to challenge conventions and embrace boldness. They have become the new powerhouses of organizations.”
Challenge is foolproof bait for innovators
Hire a roster of gifted renegades and problem solved, right? Not so fast. We’re in what NPR has called the “Great Resignation,” when millions of workers are declining to return to the office without remote work flexibility, and more young professionals than ever are insisting on getting meaning, not just a paycheck, from their gigs. Attracting and closing game-changing talent has become a blood sport.
If Rare Breed innovators are ducking your recruiting emails and turning down offers, there are a couple of reasons. First, your organization might be too white, straight, and square. In a CNBC/SurveyMonkey Workforce survey, 80% of respondents said they want to work for a company that values diversity, equity, and inclusion. So a more open, welcoming culture wouldn’t hurt. But that’s not the biggest reason high-octane minds don’t sign on.
It’s challenge, or the dearth of it. Bright, high-performing creatives want to go where they can tackle impossible problems, flip the bird to naysayers, be pushed to their limits, and try new stuff. If your organization has a rep for being complacent and stagnant, forget it. That’s the finding of a 2018 Korn Ferry survey of nearly 5,000 workers, and it’s also the view of Hal Gregersen, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of Questions are the Answer.
“At MIT, we have this brand of leadership called ‘challenge-driven leadership,” he said in our interview. “Basically, I don’t follow you because you’re you. I follow you because the challenge that you care about is so vexing, intriguing, and important that it’s worth my time and energy.”
Gregersen also said that rather than being agents of anarchy, boundary-pushers tend to be intentional about going where they can best leverage their unique abilities.
“Our human nature is actually to keep the status quo. That’s genetically hardwired into us. You need the person who will challenge the status quo. But that happens by design, not default. These people are systematic, conscientious, and focused on putting themselves in conditions where they can use specific skills to get those counterintuitive, irritating insights that can either make the system better or deliver something better to the end-user.”
That suggests concrete steps execs can deploy to lure Rare Breed innovators like moths to a flame:
- Trust your people: Make existing teams and workgroups more self-governing and entrepreneurial. Get rid of penalties for risk-taking, real or imaginary. Release the brakes on your most creative people.
- Establish skunkworks: Put together diverse teams of smart people to tackle intractable problems. Give them space, time, resources, and let them radically innovate. Rotate skunkworks rosters so everybody who wants to play gets time in the sandbox.
- Encourage unconventional questions: No more off-limits topics. Hold regular, open-ended “skull sessions” in which “dumb,” audacious, and insane questions are welcome. Establish a monthly award for “Best Question.” Most important, when someone asks a question that gets everyone buzzing, stop at nothing to answer it.
- Create awards or incentives for daring, wild ideas: Got a Rare Breed award for the most innovative idea? Speaking of awards, incentivize big, outrageous ideas. We’re not talking $100 Amazon gift cards, we’re talking meteoric recognition for ideas that are speculative, dreamy, and rooted lots of “what if?” thinking.
- Quiz your innovators: Want to know who you’re rebellious, audacious, weird, obsessed, and emotional thinkers are on your team? The Rare Breed Quiz is a sophisticated tool developed alongside a psychologist and professor. Help your team lean into their most powerful traits at work to encourage and celebrate innovative thinking.
- Change the corporate vocabulary: You’re the keeper of the culture, and if you want people to feel challenged, speak and write like it. Ditch hedging, conservative, half-measure language in favor of terms like “moonshot,” “preemptive innovation,” and “first-mover advantage.” Talk like innovators and you’ll attract them.
Innovative thinking can be learned
Remember what we said about some leaders being insecure because they believe innovation is an inborn genetic trait? Not so much. The truth about hyper-creative virtuosity is that while some of it is innate, for the most part thinking like an innovator is a skill set. You can learn to do it, and you can teach your current staff how to do it, too.
In his earlier book, The Innovator’s DNA, Gregersen, and his coauthors found that genetic gifts account for only around 25% to 40% of human innovative abilities. The rest comes from the mastery of five skills:
- Questioning: sparking conversations that challenge the status quo
- Observing: picking up on small details others miss
- Associative thinking: making intuitive connections between disparate ideas or approaches
- Networking: connecting with others in order to get fresh perspectives and new experiences
- Experimenting: testing new ideas, and treating the outcomes, not as conclusions, but next steps in a process
While you may still import mavericks to give your innovation machine a jump-start, you can also grow your own heretical, challenging thinkers. In other words, there may not be as big a chasm as you think between the innovation demigods and your team. As Gregersen said:
“Day in and day out, Jeff Bezos and far fewer famous people intentionally put themselves in contexts where they’re dead wrong, uncomfortable, and reflectively quiet. That is not your average manager’s mantra when they go to work in the morning. All these disruptive innovators—that’s what they do, too. The issue is, can they not only do it for themselves but are they capable of inviting other people to be that way?”
Confront uncomfortable truths
There it is. That’s what separates the legends from the run-of-the-mill. Any baseball team can open its checkbook to sign a $300 million free agent, but it takes patience, vision, and leadership to groom your own stars in the minors. Master those five innovator’s skills yourself and teach them to your people. Not everyone will embrace them, and not everyone will excel at them, but some will flex creative muscles they didn’t know they had. So will you.
Where to start? As always, with great questions:
- “What are we doing wrong? What are we missing?”
- “Who should we be huddled with, swapping ideas?”
- “What should we be testing in the field right now?”
The goal is to see who takes to these innovator’s skills, so expand your organization’s field of vision. Get your people into new, counterintuitive environments—nature, art, music—and see whose synapses really start firing. Notice which people engage in generative thinking and watch as you do the same.
Put your people in situations where they can observe and associate. Encourage extemporaneous conversations and brainstorming. Figure out how to dismantle accepted truths. Take note of who steps naturally into leadership roles and who’s willing to be the face of a new idea that’s got a 50/50 chance of failure. That’s the beginning of your homegrown talent pool, and building it from within also transforms you into the kind of organization that can attract once-in-a-generation Rare Breed innovative thinkers from the outside.
Sunny Bonnell and Ashleigh Hansberger are founders of Motto and authors of Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different.
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