Why you should embrace your company's heretics

December 13, 2011: 11:17 AM ET

Today's challenges demand the full imagination and passion of every individual -- yet most organizations were designed to elicit compliance, conformity, and predictability. What would it take to create organizations that are as resilient, inventive, inspiring, and accountable as the people who work inside of them? How do we build organizations that are fit for the future -- and fit for human beings? This series from the MIX's Polly LaBarre explores that question with reports from the progressive thinkers and adventuresome practitioners reinventing the future of organizations. 

Why does so much innovation happen in spite of the system, rather than because of it? A look at what it takes to embrace your organization's misfits.

While many have embraced the ethos behind Apple's celebrated "Think Different" campaign of the late 1990s, how much has actually changed at most offices?

By Polly LaBarre, contributor

(TheMIX) -- "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM." That chestnut has morphed from sales proposition to object lesson on the perils of clinging to convention in less than a generation.

We've ditched the dark suits and "sincere" ties of our father's IBM (IBM) for black turtlenecks and jeans, and we have embraced the "think different" ethos of Apple's (AAPL) celebrated campaign:

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in square holes. The ones who see things differently.

But how much has really changed? Too many people who would rather spend their working life making a meaningful impact spend their days wading through bureaucratic sludge and toxic politics instead. Why is it that the same responsible grown-up who can make a decision to purchase a car or a house over the weekend cannot obtain a new desk chair without going through a convoluted permissions process? Why does so much innovation happen in spite of the system, rather than because of it?

Too many people still work in organizations that resemble the IBM of their grandfather's (or great-grandfather's) day -- organizations designed to exert tight control at the expense of autonomy, to maximize compliance over individual expression and discretion.

Yet if we want originality and invention, we need to fill our organizations with people who ignore the rules, flout convention, question constantly, and experiment fearlessly. We need the rebels and the troublemakers because, as Apple's Think Different campaign put it, "they change things. They push the human race forward."

A home for heretics

Making your organization a home for heretics just might be the best way of making sure it has a future. That's the case Carmen Medina makes.  Medina, who spent her nearly 32-year career "being a heretic" inside the CIA, one of the most tightly controlled organizations on earth, argues that "all change is against the rules." That was certainly true when, as a senior manager of analysts, she championed a disruptive effort to make the U.S. intelligence community more open and adaptive. That clandestine project became Intellipedia -- think wiki for spies -- which boasts more than 300,000 users who have contributed some million pages in the last five years and make 15,000 edits and share a million instant messages every day.

In her years at the CIA (she recently retired from her position as director of the Center for the Study of Intelligence), Medina says she learned that heretics need other heretics. Recalling her early encounters with the leaders of the Intellipedia project, Sean Dennehy and Don Burke, Medina says, "We found each other and formed the rebel alliance."

Second, iconoclasts may be inconvenient but they're inevitable in any institution. Bank on it, Medina advises: "You all have heretics. They are not your enemy. They are trying to help you. They are not your problem -- they are probably the start of your solution."

It's no coincidence that I met up with Medina at IBM's centennial celebration, where she spoke to an audience of IBMers and high-profile leaders from around the world. Reflecting on the company's vibrancy after a century in business at the event, outgoing CEO Sam Palmisano, suggested that what's remarkable isn't IBM's longevity, but its ability to continuously change. In other words, unlike so many once-venerable companies, IBM has escaped the trap of becoming your grandfather's IBM.

It has done so in part by embracing the mavericks in its midst at crucial moments in its history. A classic case in point: After IBM lifer and corporate strategist John Patrick experienced the Web in the early '90s for the first time, he was hooked. He set off on a relentless campaign to convert the company to his vision that the Internet was changing everything and that IBM should play a leading role in that revolution.

Patrick broke all kinds of rules, overstepped his bounds (and his budget) repeatedly, crossed lines, and ruffled feathers. He also galvanized a band of believers -- including IBM's then CEO Lou Gerstner, who, when presented with an early demo of the corporate website, famously asked, "Where's the buy button?"

An indefatigable evangelist, Patrick used every tactic to cut through the company's notorious parochialism, convert skeptics, educate the clueless, and jumpstart the complacent. He wrote an electrifying manifesto, recruited a far-flung team of technologists and enthusiasts, surfaced and connected the dots between initiatives from every corner of the company, and resorted to forcing mechanisms when needed (such as the time he spent tens of thousands of unauthorized dollars to buy the most prominent exhibit space at Internet world to showcase IBM's then-fledgling Internet offerings).

The result: IBM was widely recognized as an early Internet leader, the company created a booming e-business offering, and Patrick's efforts spawned a diaspora of inspired activists who have made their own waves over the last 15 years.

If a rigidly controlled intelligence agency and a hundred-year-old industrial corporation can welcome (and profit from) heretics, what's stopping you?

Forget the rules -- build belief.

I asked author and serial troublemaker Seth Godin what it takes to make an organization safe for heretics. "There's a big difference between religion and faith," he said. "Religion is the set of rules created to maximize the chances that you will do what the manager wants you to do. A heretic is someone who has faith but could care less about religion."

John Patrick dispatched with all of the religious rules that guided IBM at the time -- from who got to go to what meeting to what to wear -- but his faith in IBM and his dedication to creating the best future for the company never wavered.

Heretics aren't just flame-throwers, they're builders. According to Godin, "what you need to do as a manager, leader or owner is to say: this is our faith and to only hire people who embrace it and suspend the religion anytime it makes sense."

Revel in the fringe.

The organizations that are most hospitable to heretics find ways to bring out the welcome mat for fringe elements. Scour your organization and beyond for positive deviants, invite dissent, and stop trying to shape people to fit your mold. Spend time with people who are not like you (and who you may not like). Hire "slow learners" (of the organizational code).

Remember, you need the heretics -- they don't need you.

As Carmen Medina argues, heretics exist whether you like it or not (the trick is to learn to like it). A person with a dream will only grow more determined in the face of resistance. That was certainly the case for Kim Spinder, a Dutch Ministry employee who devised a seemingly simple hack with a potentially radical impact: civil servants across the Netherlands are invited to share their workspaces, expertise, and resources via a Web booking system and a set of social tools. Deelstoel ("share chair" in Dutch) doesn't just aim to share space but to align civil servants with each other and with the communities they serve.

Spinder launched the initiative with no money or permission and managed to enlist some 400 government offices (and growing) to open their doors, their databases, and share their coffee pots. The program is generating spontaneous connection and "common sense collaboration" among co-workers and constituents who were previously invisible to each other. Spinder's story offers profound and practical lessons for aspiring mavericks everywhere.

Dear readers: Are you one of the crazy ones? A corporate misfit, maverick, or troublemaker? Do you know anybody who is? Share your story or hack on the power (or the pitfalls) of heretics at work. How do we make organizations safe for heretics?

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The Management Innovation eXchange is a site dedicated to sparking conversation and progress around the most critical challenges that managers face today: How to create organizations that are fit for the future -- and fit for human beings. The MIX seeks to enlist as many in-the-trenches innovators, progressive leaders, and adventuresome thinkers as possible in pursuit of that goal. Users can submit, rate, and build on each others' ideas -- creating an open platform for management innovation. The MIX is supported by several leading institutions, including McKinsey & Co., Dell, HCL, Red Hat, London Business School, HSM, and the Human Capital Institute.

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