Many years ago, during my tour of duty in the corporate ranks, I worked for a company that was headed toward real financial trouble if we didn’t make some changes.
We were experiencing an “innovate or die” moment for the business. Faced with that dire reality, we reworked nearly every part of the business over the course of a couple years.
It was a grueling and exhilarating process. Ultimately, our efforts paid off, as we doubled our revenue per employee in a three year period—a result I still marvel at today.
At the center of this work was a brilliant guy named Kevin. Kevin had a really interesting and diverse background that seemed to simultaneously qualify him for everything and nothing. He was extremely curious and smart, and saw opportunities and solutions where others could not.
He was also quirky and awkward in dealing with people. His communication style and bluntness often rubbed people the wrong way. Since he saw things from a different perspective than most, he was always the devil’s advocate in meetings, and never missed an opportunity to poke a hole in a seemingly good idea.
Kevin was a weirdo.
And it was precisely this quality about him that made him so valuable and potent for the organization.
While everyone else in the room looked at a problem in the same way, Kevin saw it differently. Weirdo.
When everyone else nodded their heads in agreement as an idea was presented, Kevin would ask a question that hadn’t occurred to anyone else in the room and force us to see the idea from a different perspective. Weirdo.
When everyone else was prioritizing politeness and “being nice” while discussing something that clearly had issues, Kevin would speak that truth into reality. Weirdo.
One of the reasons our organizations are so poor at innovation is that we don’t have enough weirdos. In fact, I’d argue that most organizations have actually engineered their culture to be anti-weirdo.
We hire for “cultural fit,” which screens out the weirdos.
We prioritize being polite over telling the truth to keep the weirdos from complicating things
We label those who constantly challenge ideas as “difficult” to justify excluding them from important conversations. No weirdos allowed.
Let’s be honest: A workplace without weirdos is far easier to manage. Minimal conflict. Lots of agreement and head nodding. Everyone gets along because we all share so much in common.
It’s also easy to let your ship be carried by the river current right over the waterfall to ruin.
Easy is over-rated.
And no one ever said innovation was easy. It’s not. Reinventing your business or even a small part of it is hard. And, it may be impossible without some weirdos in the room.
Your business needs more weirdos. Who are these weirdos? You’ll recognize them because they do these things:
- They see things differently than everyone else.
- They ask different questions.
- They say unexpected things.
- They make you feel uncomfortable.
- They don’t mind being unpopular; some even embrace unpopularity as a badge of honor.
And here’s the good news: You already have some weirdos on the payroll. They are hiding in plain sight.
The bad news is that you’ve created a culture where you reward the behaviors that make managing easy and punish those that don’t. So, your weirdos have learned that they can either play small or find someplace else to work.
To unleash your weirdos and reap the benefits of their genius, here are some steps you can take.
- Encourage divergent thinking. When you are problem solving together or reviewing a new concept or idea, make it part of the process to ask, “Why is this a bad idea?” or, “Why might this fail?” Don’t leave the conversation until at least three people have answered these questions. This practice invites your weirdos to do what they do best. It also teaches people to seek out diverse opinions as they problem solve, because they know their ideas will ultimately have to face this test.
- Create conversations about how to put yourself out of business. This is something I wrote about a few months ago that was inspired by Adam Grant. This exercise unleashes all of the deviant, weirdo minds to run wild and talk about the things that are generally “unmentionable.” As a result, you can see your business and its opportunities through a new lens.
- Formalize a rotating “devil’s advocate” role. By assigning the responsibility in meetings or brainstorming sessions of devil’s advocate, you accomplish two things: First, you train people to think critically and to intentionally find the flip side of an argument. But, even more critically, you teach people what it feels like to be the weirdo. Pushing people outside of the warm, safe embrace of conformity and assimilation can help them find empathy for those who take a stand by themselves in other situations.
- Teach conflict skills. When we help employees and managers find the skills to more confidently manage conflict with others, we make the culture safer for the weirdos to shine. Weirdos create conflict because they are different. And most people don’t like conflict because they are ill-equipped to handle it. As you get better at conflict, you’ll stop running off your weirdos.
Bottom line: if you are pursuing innovation at your organization, you need more weirdos.
And, you probably need to be more of a weirdo yourself.