Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Free Range: A Well-Spring for Corporate Renewal

By Jane Gannon

While much of the territory once referred to as “free range” has long since been purchased, plowed or otherwise domesticated, another free range may be coming into view. This free range is about intellectual more than geographic territories. It is where ideas mix with theories, facts and the creative, inventive spirit. It is the place where new trends are born and old proclivities are transformed. It is a place where the boundaries that are crossed are more perceptual than geographic or political. It is a vast and rich territory that surrounds most every corporation, yet it remains unexplored and often ignored by many.

Few have experienced the potential that resides in these spaces. Fewer still have actually spent their careers mining this place for the seeds of innovation and corporate renewal. 

In mid-October, a group of veteran free range riders convened for a Mavericks Workshop in Tiburon, California. Experiences from multiple crossings of the invisible but distinct boundaries that exist between corporate “pastures” and the corporate free range were shared. Of great interest to this group was the role and contributions of the maverick in corporate innovation and renewal. 

Dick Cheverton, a top editor at the Orange County Register, who is writing the soon-to-be published book, The Maverick Way, kicked off the workshop by describing mavericks as those who straddle both the pastures of corporate life and the relatively vast, rule-less, and yet-to-be domesticated free spaces, which are rich with potential for corporate growth and innovation.

By being “unbranded,” the maverick moves freely within an organization, cuts across lines of power, brings people and ideas together, bends the rules and subverts authority. The maverick also moves freely outside the corporation, probing and exploring areas and developing relationships whose relevance to the corporation may not be readily evident, but frequently leads to significant innovations. Mavericks are motivated more by their love of freedom to pursue their interests. Mavericks use the corporation in which they work as a place to pursue this freedom, despite the corporation’s own ambivalence towards them.

While the workshop was titled, “Protecting Mavericks,” it became readily apparent that many of those gathered did not need or want protecting. Many did concede, however, that early in their maverick careers they did have “protectors.”

Bill Wilson, the retired Vice President of Innovation Management at Kimberly-Clark Corporation, who, as a master maverick, is the inspiration for The Maverick Way, suggested that the maverick poses a unique management challenge. By their nature, mavericks operate on the free range, between the confines of corporate boundaries and the wilderness of potential entrepreneurial opportunity. Working with mavericks requires different skills and philosophy.

Wilson defined a maverick as one who:

• thinks and acts in an unpredictable manner that results in innovative ways of living;

• doesn’t take no for an answer;

• doesn’t ask, and doesn’t tell;

• knows the network, the territory and where to go to get help;

• knows that where there is a will there is a way; and

• gets the insight into the product vision.

Leo Shapiro, Chairman of Leo Shapiro & Associates, who is a master trend spotter and analyst, described the various stages a maverick goes through as scapegoat, prophet and trailblazer. Despite being considered out of the mainstream, mavericks are in part defined by the “company they keep,” which is rarely limited to one company, field or area of expertise. Mavericks tend to operate as a member of a group that exists in his or her own mind rather than only as a member of the group of persons who are physically present.

Shapiro views the challenge of mavericks is to tell the corporation what it doesn’t want to hear. Successful mavericks have learned how to do that and not get terminated. As a result, mavericks are prey more often than predators, and have learned to be very aware and quick to react.

The workshop provided a chance for corporate mavericks to meet, share stories and ideas, and network with one another, an opportunity which all of the participants found valuable.

To keep this conversation and network of Mavericks forging ahead on the free range, we are promoting further discussion. Please call us if you would like more information on mavericks, the workshop, the book, or the Maverick Roundtable.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in November 1998. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.  

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