Samuel J. Palmisano

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." More

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