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, 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 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 innovationsthatwork.com 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 Amazon.com: