Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Hunting for "Bears" with a Maverick

By John Raley

Several years ago, I was talking with some people about what it was like to work with a Maverick.  The answer I received was in the form of a story.  At first I found the story to be, well, quite humorous.  However, the more I thought about the story, the more I realized just how replete and rich it was with insights about Mavericks, about the people who work with them, and about organizations that hope to have successful Mavericks in their midst.

The story says working for a maverick is like going bear hunting.  Your group, including a maverick named Charlie, arrives at the hunting cabin in the evening.  After unpacking, everyone turns in for a good night’s sleep.  The next morning you awake and discover that Charlie the maverick is gone.

A quick search confirms that Charlie is not in or around the cabin.  About that time you hear Charlie’s voice, coming from the woods, yelling “Open the door, open the door!”  Looking outside, you see Charlie running down the path toward the cabin with a bear in hot pursuit.  “Open the door, open the door,” Charlie continues to yell.

“Oh my God,” everyone gasps.  “We have to open the door so that Charlie can get into the safety of the cabin.  If he has to slow down to open the door, the bear will surely catch him just outside the door.”  So you open the door and yell at Charlie to run faster.

Just as Charlie gets to the door, with the bear nipping at his heels, Charlie quickly steps aside.  The bear unable to stop, hurls into the cabin.  Charlie quickly slams the door and then heads back up the trail yelling, “You take care of that one.  I’ll go get another!”

That is what it is like to work with a Maverick.

Everyone in the story had the same purpose – going bear hunting.  However, there were different expectations of how the bear hunting would proceed.  The metaphors in the story say a lot about mavericks, about working with mavericks, and about what organizations can expect from mavericks.

The Bear represents new ideas.  All organizations want new ideas to improve their products, their people, and their competitive advantage.  Management is always interested in bringing new ideas into the organization.

The Group represents the people working with a maverick.  These people need to stay on their toes because they never know exactly what the maverick is going to be bringing through the door, or exactly when this will occur.  People working with a maverick need a broad spectrum of skills and need to keep their skills sharp because the form the new idea has when it enters the organization may not be what would normally be expected.  And, perhaps most importantly, people working with a maverick need to be comfortable with surprises and capable of handling them.

Charlie represents the Maverick.  The maverick sees his or her job as one of going out into the wilderness and bringing new ideas back to the organization.  Once the maverick has brought the new idea back to the organization (i.e., the bear is in the cabin), he sees his part of the job as done and goes off in search of the next idea.

People in the organization, unless they understand mavericks, will feel that the maverick has left things undone, did not maintain ownership of the idea through to completion, and left a mess for them to clean up.

The Cabin represents the Organization.  An organization is typically designed and operated with the expectation that things will happen in a certain way.  However, a maverick within an organization will often have things happening in a quite different way.  As picture in the story, having a bear loose in the cabin runs the risk of tearing up the cabin a bit.  However, the benefit is that the maverick is off hunting again and more bears can be caught sooner rather than later.

The same can be said of organizations who hope to have successful mavericks in their midst.  The organization must be flexible enough to accommodate having things “torn up a bit” knowing that, in the long run, they will have a more rapid influx of useful new ideas.  However, key to that success is also having a group of people within the organization that can take raw ideas and transform them into things that are of value to the organization.

Going hunting for bears with a maverick can be an exciting and profitable path for innovation within an organization.  However, be prepared.  Make sure that you are ready for surprises, you have a team that can handle them, and you have a structure that can survive some turmoil!

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in September 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: 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Origins of the Innovation Practitioners Network

In 1997, Bill Wilson, retired Senior Vice President of Innovation Management at Kimberly-Clark Corporation, along with Lanny Vincent and Dick Cheverton, began a collaboration that lead to the publication of The Maverick Way: Profiting the Power of the Corporate Misfit. The book chronicled the practices and experiences of Wilson’s innovation network which was instrumental in successfully transforming Kimberly-Clark—over a period of two decades—from a forest products company to a consumer package goods company. Jim Collin’s work, From Good to Great, refers to Darwin Smith, a so-called Level 5 leader, who successfully led this transformation of Kimberly-Clark. Bill Wilson, and his experiences described in The Maverick Way, is the story behind the story.

As he was writing the book, Dick Cheverton suggested to Lanny Vincent, that it might be a good idea to bring some veteran practitioners of innovation management together to test out some of the emerging themes in the book. From 1998 to 2001, Vincent & Associates, Ltd. underwrote a gathering of between 15 and 35 veteran practitioners of innovation. These annual gatherings were called The Mavericks Roundtable—spirited and stimulating exchanges that left their own lasting impression on those who participated and contributed, so much so, that they kept meeting, even after the original motivation for the gatherings had been accomplished—the writing of The Maverick Way. These practitioners came from a variety of different companies. Some of the more recognizable names included Hewlett-Packard, Weyerhaeuser, Whirlpool, Pitney-Bowes, and Eastman Kodak. Other companies included The Learning Curve, Clif Bar, Hello Direct, Sealed Air Corporation, Molecular Devices and The Sperry Group, among others. Many of these companies continue to participate today in the Innovation Practitioners Network.

In 2003, participants in the previous Mavericks Roundtables decided to conduct an indepth, five-company study, examining how companies with established revenue stream balance the demands and needs of the operating culture with the demands and needs of innovation. The resulting report, entitled “Soft Systems for Hard Cores,” made a modest, but original contribution to the field of innovation management with the description of an implicit but necessary role—innovation midwives. The report was published, under the title “Innovation Midwives,” in the International Research Institute’s journal, Research-Technology Management, January 2005.

One of the findings of this five-company innovation study was a strong correlation between successful innovation efforts and the health of implicit, informal networks of innovation practitioners. The implication was obvious. If the relative health of a company’s implicit and informal network of innovation practitioners matters so much, doesn’t it make sense to spend a little time and effort—in a low-key, implicit fashion—cultivating the heath and development of that network?

In 2004, six subscribing companies answered that question with a resounding “yes.” And thus, the Innovation Practitioners Network was born. The network meets annually and focuses on the principles and practices of Research and Development-based innovating. 

The 2012 Innovation Practitioners Network conference is on Applying Systems Theory to Innovating Practice. For more information call (415) 387-1270 or email lanny@innovationsthatwork.com.

For a copy of the Innovation Midwives report or a free signed copy of The Maverick Way: Profiting the Power of the Corporate Misfit, call (415) 387-1270 or email jane@innovationsthatwork.com. You can also purchase the book at Amazon.com: