Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Maverick Way

This year’s Mavericks Roundtable clarified some key elements of the Maverick Way – a set of conditions and processes that enable corporate innovation and renewal.  So we thought it timely to express our best current thinking about the Maverick Way.

The Maverick Way has four essential elements which appear to increase the probability of success for corporate innovation efforts.  These elements include:

·      an acute awareness of the external and internal conditions that shape the need for an innovation;

·      frequent boundary crossings within and between organizations and fields of specialization;

·      constant mental “movement” of mavericks having a catalytic effect with collaborators; and

·      mentors who know how to spot and protect mavericks and find a home for the resulting innovation in the organization.

Each factor alone is insufficient for successful innovation.  In combination, however, these four factors significantly increase the chances for our innovation efforts to exceed the expectations of the organizations that sponsor them.

Awareness of Conditions

Innovation efforts do not occur in a vacuum.  The need to innovate and the nature of the particular innovation called for – be it in product, process, marketing or strategy – is shaped by external industry and competitive conditions.  It is also shaped by the structure and culture of the “host” organization.

Many years ago at Kimberly-Clark Corporation, Bill Wilson correlated the type of required innovation to the life-cycle stage of the industry and/or company.  In his book, Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation, James Utterback puts forth the elegant concept of “dominant design” to describe how product and process innovation evolves and shifts, and subsequently shapes the particular industry in which it occurs.  And recently, at the Mavericks Roundtable, many participants were convinced that the host organization’s type of organizational structure shapes the character or the innovation itself.

Organizations have strong predilections to survive.  Frequently that very survival requires a change that appears to threaten the existing organizational structure.  In some cases, if these organizations are to survive they must change; even change their very structure itself.  Cisco Systems seems to be a successful model as it appears to successfully seek out, invest in, integrate and ultimately allow itself to be changed by its acquisitions.

Boundaries Are Crossed

Innovation derives in part from what happens when boundaries (either geographical, technological, organizational or conceptual boundaries) are exposed and crossed and something new is discovered in the crossing.  This is what is meant by “out of the box” or “breakthrough” innovation.  Research by Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap, authors of the book, When Sparks Fly, indicates that the more successful managers of creative groups emphasize the need for group members who are willing to “blur the boundaries” – those who are not territorial about their specialized knowledge and are not afraid to venture onto the intellectual turf of others.

At the 1998 Mavericks Roundtable, we discussed the notion of the corporate “free range,” a metaphor for the range of ideas, people and knowledge that exists free of the host organization’s operating boundaries (corporate “pasture”).  Boundaries help organizations maintain operating control and produce returns for investors.  However, these same boundaries can limit the organization’s growth.  New growth frequently comes from mixing the new from the free range with the “conventional” within established corporate boundaries.  Mavericks are particularly adept at these border crossings.

Mavericks Move

Mavericks, as the historical roots of the word suggests, not only prefer to maintain their “unbrandedness,” they tend to move and morph, changing places and even identities in order to avoid anything that would inhibit their freedom.  Like the interest many managers have in accumulating organizational power, mavericks display a similar passion for pursuing organizational and intellectual freedom.  This is one of the fundamental motivators that makes mavericks appear to be misfits in organizations, and one reason many organizations unwittingly let their mavericks go.

Many mavericks don’t appreciate being labeled a maverick.  Such a “branding” may inhibit their freedom to pursue whatever is required or needs to be pursued.  It is much easier to cross borders when you are anonymous.  However, remaining unbranded in an organization is not something a maverick can easily do alone.

Mentors Protect

Mentors or managers of mavericks are the silent partners of mavericks.  These mentors may be as, if not more, important to the organization’s future as mavericks themselves.  This is one of the insights that came from this year’s Mavericks Roundtable.

The story of the inventor Stienmetz and his manager at General Electric is a classic case in point.  Many years ago GE instituted a no smoking policy for the labs.  Shortly after the policy was announced, Stienmetz’s manager passed by the office of this prolific, pipe-smoking inventor and saw him packing up his things and cleaning off his desk.  Shocked, the manager stopped and asked what was going on, to which the inventor replied, “No smoke, no Stienmetz.”

The manager went home that night completely distraught over the possibility of losing one of GE’s most prized and productive minds.  It didn’t take the manager long to do a little inventing of his own.  The next day Stienmetz was back at work, smoking his pipe.  Everything else was the same, of course, except for the sign on Stienmetz’s office door which read: “Smoking Lounge.”


This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in November 1999. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 387-1270.    

Editor's Note: The Maverick Way: Profiting from the Power of the Corporate Misfit was published as a book in 2000. If you would like a signed copy of the book by author Lanny Vincent, please call 415-387-1270 or you may purchase a copy at

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Matching R&D to Business Conditions

A perennial challenge for a Research & Development function is to maintain its autonomy by being relevant.

On one hand, if R&D efforts are exclusively focused on today’s technical problems, tomorrow’s technical innovations may be left to the competition. On the other hand, when R&D is overly focused on tomorrow’s breakthroughs, incremental improvements in product and process may never be realized.  Furthermore, organizational backlash can easily lead R&D to be perceived as “elite.”  So how do R&D leaders maintain the proper balance? How can the unpredictability of innovation be made to fit with the orderly management of business operations?

Theodore Levitt observed that “organizations evolve to do predictable work, and in so doing they create procedures and routines that also tend to stifle innovation.” He went on to say that R&D may systematically foster innovation and change, but mostly fixed procedures and set routines impede it.

Like many, Levitt believes that innovation must be done everywhere in the organization, at all levels.  While this may sound good, results can lead to organizational indigestion. Instead of relentlessly advocating innovation anywhere and everywhere in the organization, wiser R&D leaders seem to pick their battles more carefully and thoughtfully. One of the things they consider is the prevailing competitive conditions affecting their partners in Operations.

Before he retired as the Vice President of Innovation Management at Kimberly-Clark, Bill Wilson developed a relevancy test to help R&D leaders better understand how to maintain the right balance between supporting operations today and directing innovations for tomorrow.

The test starts by carefully considering the competitive conditions of the operation. Normally, business operations exist in one of four possible competitive climates, each with its own operational priorities: Growth, Consolidation, Expansion and Maturation. If these conditions are not carefully considered or are misunderstood, the innovation can be perceived as irrelevant, if it is perceived at all.  Wilson used a diagnostic tool similar to the diagram shown here to help match innovations in development to the conditions of each business operation.

Management needs different skills depending upon which competitive conditions exist for the business or product category.  For example, if a manager uses criteria appropriate to mature conditions when the business is experiencing rapid growth, he or she can kill the innovation right off the bat.  Innovation is developmental; it takes time, care and nurturing. Each set of competitive conditions has its own language, motivations and patterns of behavior. Therefore, R&D management needs to act and communicate with operational priorities in mind. This is especially true for those who seek to introduce innovation. Wilson said, “If I had had this approach thirty years earlier at Kimberly-Clark, I’d have done a lot of things differently and probably been a lot more successful.”

(Bill Wilson received the Chairman’s coveted Entrepreneurial Achievement Award shortly after his retirement from Kimberly-Clark in 1988 for such achievements as initiating the company’s non-woven business, and for his role in the development of many product and process innovations, including disposable diapers.)


This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in May 1995. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 387-1270.