Free The Radicals

A friend recently sent me a link to a Chicago Ideas presentation by Alexa Clay, Leadership Lessons from King Pins, Hackers, Gangsters and Misfits. I highly recommend it.

Ms. Clay’s talk deals with leadership lessons from black market innovators, those entrepreneurs who drive the underground economy. The link to her talk was timely in that I had just read an article about inmates who have been escaping from the Federal penitentiary in Atlanta, buying goods and RETURNING to prison, bringing back liquor, cigarettes, cellphones and other merchandise to sell to their fellow inmates. Talk about dedicated entrepreneurs!

But her talk also resonated in that it aligns with something I have been thinking about a lot lately. What is the value to be gained from listening to the radicals, the misfits, the mavericks in established mainstream organizations? Most businesses have them to one degree or another. And they are more often than not overlooked, ignored, perhaps denigrated. That’s assuming they last long enough even to be noticed. (Remember Peter Gibbons in Office Space?)

One of the points in the presentation is that we need to talk to people who make us uncomfortable, people with radically different experiences and ideas.

I remember a piece in Fast Company from a decade and a half ago by Keith Hammonds, “Practical Radicals” (Practical Radicals). There is a great quote from the article:

“You know the sort: They operate deep within big companies, well beneath the cultural radar, and are practically invisible to the top brass. They are part of their organization, yet somehow apart as well, professional irritants who are tolerated more than embraced. They survive and persist: Employing many different styles and strategies, typically waging small battles rather than epic wars, they work slowly to change the rules.”

There is a tendency in organizations, especially bigger ones, and most pronounced in those that are highly bureaucratic, to expect everyone to conform to a standard code of behavior, thinking, image and persona. But it is this same mindset that leads to groupthink and a lack of innovation.

Some time ago I worked with members of a large government organization tasked with adopting best practices common to its private industry counterparts. I was impressed by the number of individuals in the organization, radicals in their own way, who were highly entrepreneurial, had innovative ideas to share, but were frustrated by a bureaucracy that largely ignored them.

We need to listen to the radicals in our organizations; the mavericks, the nonconformists, those whose ideas fly in the face of “business as usual”. They should feel empowered to share their ideas and perspectives. For they just may hold in their hands, or in their heads, the next great breakthrough innovation that could make all the difference in the world. We should not ignore them just because they’re different, because they don’t conform to “the norm”.

I would be delighted to hear your perspective on these issues as well as examples of radicals in organizations who have made a difference. Please drop me a line and share your thoughts.

Mike Cobb