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The maverick in the ranks - how do we deal with the talented non-conformist?

06 November 2014

Sport can teach us much about business. A recent storm in the cricket world around the release of Kevin Pietersen's new autobiography has caught my eye. It highlights the classic dilemma: how to deal with a talented non-conformist.

In the very first paragraph of his book, Pietersen relates the joke about a mother watching a column of soldiers passing by. She remarks that all the men are out of step, except for her son Fred. Pietersen starts with this joke so that he can make the following response, setting the tone for most of the book: "... if I was in the trenches I'd want Fred at my side. I don't march in step ... That's not who I am."

This attitude from Pietersen seems to split opinion down the middle. Those who value the established order above all else take statements like this as confirmation that he is, all things considered, a dangerous trouble-maker, just a show-pony. Good riddance, they say. On the other side, those who tend to favour innovation and creativity as the route to success raise their hands in his support.

Kevin Pietersen is undoubtedly, in the world of cricket at least, a non-conformist. And, depending on whose opinion you seek, he has proved himself highly talented, hard-working, and very successful.

For me, this whole episode illustrates the never-ending struggle between order and innovation in business. And it highlighted one interesting aspect of this struggle. It's an aspect that seems obvious when you see it, so obvious that perhaps we don't acknowledge it often enough. Those who value order also invariably expect the results that come from creativity and new ideas. At the other end of the scale, those who want innovation seem to long for an order that works; a structure that allows them to be creative and successful. And, between these two extremes, there's an often silent majority thinking "they're both right, why don't they stop arguing and start doing something?"

In the business world, the word innovation gets used with impunity. Indeed, Head of Innovation roles are now increasingly common. There is no doubt that markets thrive on innovation and creativity but, too often, talk and action end up worlds apart.

Rightly, businesses must concentrate on continuity and stability - you haven't got a business for very long if you don't value them. And at heart, most innovators know and acknowledge this. But when the urge to avoid any risk means that business leaders routinely dismiss and suppress the unorthodox... what then? Sooner or later, someone who takes a risk with an unorthodox idea will grab the customers and take them elsewhere. They'll let you keep the ball and the field you're playing in, but everyone else is in the stadium next door with a shiny new ball.

Where does innovation come from? What sort of people come up with these fabulous new ideas? One of the most influential and best-selling business books of recent years is "Mavericks At Work, why the most original minds in business win", by William C Taylor and Polly LaBarre. No lesser person than Tom Peters remarked "I didn't read this book, I devoured it", an accolade indeed. The book was published in 2006, but one of the first sentences still holds true in many areas of the financial service industry "Business needs a breath of fresh air". The book argues conclusively, to me at least, that playing it safe is not the smart option.

As customers, whether we are aware of it or not, we look for differentiation. To deliver something fresh for the market, our leaders need to consider fresh ideas. The freshest ideas are likely to come from the maverick in the ranks.

So we end up back where we started: how do we deal with talented non-conformists?

Surely we should nurture them, make them feel valued, and, most importantly, listen to them? Even when it sounds like they want to throw the baby out with the bath water, do we really believe that they want to damage or destroy the very thing for which they have the idea? Is it a good idea? And is it possible that they actually want to conform, but it's the order in place that is out-dated and has become counter-productive?

An innovative future starts with new ways of thinking.

Oh... and one last thing - I wonder how many successful business leaders were originally regarded as dangerous non-conformists?

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