I've been giving some thought of late to the so called organizational "black sheep" - you know, the contrarians, "malcontents" and those that don't tow the company line (in fact, they might not even be aware that there is a company line or care that one exists if they are aware of it).
I was reminded (thanks to Tim Corcoran for his excellent post) of an interview with two-time Oscar-winning director Brad Bird of Pixar. Bird's first project at Pixar was the The Incredibles. When he showed the technical teams story reels of his vision for the movie, they "turned white" and said that it would take "ten years and cost $500 million. How are we possibly going to do this?" Did Bird cave? Did he simply compromise his creative vision in favour of the tried and true?
To the contrary, he said:
"Give us the black sheep. I want artists who are frustrated. I want the ones who have another way of doing things that nobody’s listening to. Give us all the guys who are probably headed out the door.” A lot of them were malcontents because they saw different ways of doing things, but there was little opportunity to try them, since the established way was working very, very well.
We gave the black sheep a chance to prove their theories, and we changed the way a number of things are done here. For less money per minute than was spent on the previous film, Finding Nemo, we did a movie that had three times the number of sets and had everything that was hard to do. All this because the heads of Pixar gave us leave to try crazy ideas."
That last sentence is worth repeating: "All this because the heads of Pixar gave us leave to try crazy ideas."
Some would see Bird's request, to put it politely, as a tremendous risk. Bird saw it as the only way to do what he knew had to be done to achieve his creative vision. Same old, same old wasn't going to do it. Only disruptive innovation attained through unrestrained freedom to do "crazy" things was going to do that.
How many organizations would do what Pixar did? How many organizations are a singularly and consistently on the cutting edge of their industry? How many would have the maturity and confidence to engage and empowere the "malcontents" rather than show them the door?
In my experience, most companies view the so-called malcontents and contrarians as disruptive forces that have to be "brought in line" with the "common corporate vision" or sent on their way. They try to change them rather than exploit the fact that they see things differently. Pixar's success is surely owed, in some part, to the fact that they saw the "black-sheep" as a strength.
I am reminded of an excellent book by James Surowiecki called The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. When you surround yourself with people holding different points of view, perspectives and information you make better decisions than if you sought the opinions of a homogeneous group holding identical, uniform or consistent opinions and views.