The Fastest Path To Innovation: Pamper Your Mavericks

Companies consistently pass up or cast out those who create friction, cause insecurity among leaders, or make other employees uncomfortable. It's their loss—since those mavericks are often their best shot at true innovation.

Innovation is vital for the growth, success, and wealth of firms. Yet the source of innovation is not so much investment in R&D, filing of patents, or clever market research but the recruitment, empowering, and retention of talented people, who may appear at times as mavericks. Innovators are not necessarily geeks with super high IQ or long-haired, unshaven individuals, as some stereotypes suggest. Rather, innovators may be mavericks, who come in a variety of personalities.

Innovators may include those who criticize deficiencies in current processes and products. Innovators may include whistle-blowers who call out unethical or self-defeating practices of the firm. Innovators may include dissidents who disagree with the philosophy and procedures of the firm. Innovators may include challengers who question the firm’s past dogma, present practice, and future plans. Innovators may include tinkerers who ceaselessly dabble with new models, often with little success. Innovators may include variety seekers who want novelty in living, work, travel, networks, friends, information, and stimuli. Innovators may include non-conformists who shun the normal and the routine. I use the term maverick broadly to describe a personality type that includes critics, whistle-blowers, dissidents, challengers, experimenters, variety seekers, and non-conformists. Such personalities think differently. And, innovations can emerge from such differences in thought.

The efficient, smooth-running organization dislikes mavericks because they create friction in the organization, insecurity among leaders, and discomfort among employees. The tendency is to quiet, push aside, or eject the maverick. Perverse individuals, who are self-serving or delight in causing grief to others, may well need to be ejected. But it’s a tragedy to lose a maverick, who may have the trappings of a great innovator. The history of innovation reveals such losses.

For example, Roger Newton, the co-inventor of one of the most profitable drugs, Lipitor, left Parke-Davis, where he did not quite fit in. He then started Esperion, which Pfizer bought for $1.3 billion. Tony Fadell was a VP at Philips when he left to develop a digital music player. Steve Jobs recruited him to Apple, where he co-developed the iPod. Jobs himself was once ejected from Apple, the company he founded, and which he later led to great innovations and enormous wealth. Steve Wozniak left HP to cofound Apple. He even offered HP the first personal computer he designed, which HP declined. John Warnock left Xerox PARC to cofound Adobe, because Xerox would not commercialize the InterPress graphics language he co-developed. Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce, and others left Fairchild semiconductor to cofound Intel, because Fairchild was not willing to implement their ideas.

Google, which often tops the list of America’s best places to work, loses a non-trivial percent of its employees, because such talent prefers the autonomy to develop innovations of their own outside the firm.

What can organizations do to grow their employees into innovators? My research into the history of radical innovations, the origin and demise of market pioneers, and the failure of leading incumbents, suggests three practices that help for this purpose:

  1. Empower employees with time, responsibility, and resources to experiment and come up with innovations. For example, 3M offers employees 15% of time to work on innovations of their own choosing. Google has an Associate Product Manager program where even young employees are entrusted with resources and talent to design an innovation for a specific market. In addition, asymmetric incentives and internal competition as described below are important aspects of empowerment.
  2. Provide asymmetric incentives, which consist of strong rewards for success with weak penalties for failure. By doing so, the organization encourages innovators to keep experimenting. If they succeed, they will be rewarded. If they fail, they need to learn and move one, as IDEO encourages its employees.
  3. Bring inside the organization a little of the competition that flourishes outside in the marketplace. The market outside the firm consists of hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs and innovators all over the world hungry to develop the successor to the firm’s current product. The firm needs to bring a little of this spirit within. It can do so by encouraging idea fairs, prototype races, funding contests, markets tests, and commercializations by competing teams or divisions to build the next big innovation.

Organizations may be tempted to marginalize mavericks because of the discomfort they arouse. However, the creation of innovations can benefit from mavericks. For this purpose, firms can grow mavericks into innovators by motivating them with asymmetric incentives, empowering them with responsibility and resources, and challenging them with internal competition.

Gerard J. Tellis is Professor, Neely Chair of American Enterprise, and Director of the Center for Global Innovation at the USC Marshall School of Business. He is the author of Unrelenting Innovation: How to Build a Culture of Market Dominance, part of the Warren-Bennis Leadership Series.

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4 Comments

  • Deenag

    Fantastic article,  spot on works well with past articles on Gen Flux and chaos.  Too bad some fields are so far behind in embracing these theories that it won't be in my lifetime.

  • Melanie Foster

    Love this article and totally relate to the descriptions of innovators that Gerard outlined. As a 'critical' innovator, I have to wonder - in item 2, by 'one' did he mean 'on'?

  • Jon D Harper

    Fantastic article... great association of employees challenging the status-quo and the drive towards innovation.  It's true that most organizations are uncomfortable with innovation and it's interesting to think how organizational behavior may benefit from the ability to harness the discomfort of employees that challenge versus immediate dismissal.  While not all "challenging" employees are the right fit for an organization, or even to create an opportunity for innovation, but companies should begin to embrace their discomforts and see if there is harnessable potential from even those that initially don't fit-in.