How To Nurture Your Company’s Rebels, And Unlock Their Innovative Might

Before your business is threatened by external competition, you should court the internal opposition within your own walls, argues frog’s Tim Leberecht.

How To Nurture Your Company’s Rebels, And Unlock Their Innovative Might

Choose your enemies carefully, ’cause they will define you
Make them interesting ’cause in some ways they will mind you
They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends
Gonna last with you longer than your friends.”
–U2, “Cedars of Lebanon”


We know that opposition is an integral part of the creative process. But sometimes opposition itself can be a creative act. Beyond common tactics (listed on this Community Toolbox site as “deflect, delay, deny, discount, deceive, divide, dulcify, discredit, destroy, deal”), it can manifest itself as craftsmanship and art–whether it be street art by Shepard Fairey or satire like these recent Mitt Romney campaign spoofs of Venn diagrams.

As Make Shift‘s editor, Steve Daniels, observes in the current issue, the nature of resistance is changing. Case studies ranging from Occupy Wall Street to neighborhood activism in Port-au-Prince illustrate that a combination of social technology and street-level ingenuity is producing new tools, techniques, practices, and skills for vocalizing opposition. And these in turn drive boycotts, counter-movements, and insurgencies, as well as opposition at a more mundane level, in day-to-day interactions.

With regard to business, numerous acts of creative opposition abound, from product hacks (e.g., hackers of Ikea products and Microsoft’s Kinect) to Beck’s decision to release his new album only as “sheet music” to be recorded by his fans. The entire maker and crowdfunding movements, as well as “innovation communes” such as The Glint, the Rainbow Mansion, and the Memento Factories, can be seen as fundamental acts of creative resistance to business as usual.

All of these trends made me think about creative opposition within companies–about employee activities that are counter to the top-down policies without crossing the line into the unproductive and illegal. From passive disengagement, noncompliance, and disobedience to passive aggression, covert sabotage, and overt conflict, which tactics are appropriate, legitimate, and effective? How much resistance from its fringes can an organization endure before it is threatened at its core–and stops being an organization altogether? And most important, why would fostering creative opposition even be beneficial to companies?

In his book The Opposable Mind, the management guru Roger Martin argued that the ability to hold opposing truths was a critical quality for business leaders. Or in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The mark of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in its mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” If it is true that tension is a hallmark of our complex society and requires complex solutions, and that the “most enduring institutions” are contradictory, as David Brooks contends in a recent New York Times column about the Olympics, then creative opposition inside companies is nothing but the tangible manifestation of it. With a strong and self-organized in-house opposition, companies can cover the entire breadth of their corporate character. It allows them to acknowledge that they are complex and multipolar, that they have multiple truths, and that, through this tension, they can become capable of stretching themselves, expanding, and realizing their full potential.


There are other, more practical benefits to cultivating internal opposition. Today’s Millennial employees value freedom (and opposition might well be the most obvious act of freedom), and in that sense encouraging creative opposition among young employees, rather than squashing it, can serve as an important engagement (and retention) strategy. Moreover, companies that fail to allow internal opposition may be caught off guard and slow to respond when they face external opposition. Perhaps most important, resistance can serve as a catalyst for innovation. Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips, authors of the upcoming book The Misfit Economy, posit that the “black, gray, and informal economies,” with their underground entrepreneurs (“pirates, terrorists, computer hackers, and inner city gangs”), are underappreciated sources of new business models and products.

Similarly, I would argue, the contrarians and rebels, the people on the fringes of organizations who question and deviate from the status quo, which so often leads to inertia and inflexibility, are huge assets for any organization. Those who disagree with the present often see the future more clearly. This applies to hiring, too. Many business leaders, at least those who are forward-looking, essentially seek to hire “change agents”–individuals who are both creative and persistent in bursting a straitjacket of outdated practices and processes.

Ashoka Changemakers, a global network of social innovators, and others have adopted the term “social intrapreneurship” and aim to equip contrarian employees with best practices and tools to self-organize more effectively. They also hope to raise executive-suite awareness of the potential of empowering social intrapreneurs. The Rebels at Work initiative has created a community hub for connecting corporate renegades, identifying “good rebels” as those “who feel compelled to create ways to improve, change, and innovate,” who “stand against the prevailing mindset of the organization and argue for a better way.”

Companies are beginning to realize that opposition is vital and a certain amount of conflict healthy. Some have even launched internal disruption units that can drive radical innovation from left field (e.g., Anheuser-Busch’s Beer Garage or Google X). As an alternative, companies may also bring in agencies and consultancies–hired opposition–with the mandate to disrupt conventional thinking and overcome groupthink and organizational myopia. The caveat here is that these outside interventions can lead to changes that fail to become a part of a company’s cultural fabric for the long term.

So what else can companies do to make internal opposition productive? Here are a few possible actions to consider:


1. Create safe spaces

Safe space does not necessarily refer to a formal group like an employee council but rather a practice of tolerating contrarians and mitigating their fears of retaliation or discrimination. It doesn’t mean that companies simply open-source all decision-making, flatten hierarchies, and initiate only grassroots projects. In fact, it might be more effective for companies to continue introducing new initiatives and policies from the top down but at the same time factor in enough space for oppositional voices. Every company campaign, policy, and product that is developed functions as a wave that generates undercurrents. And like every movement, it inevitably breeds a counter-movement. It is often this counter-movement that holds the insight for the next stage in the process.

2. Make sure that internal opposition is constant

Executives may be tempted to believe that inclusiveness (by way of crowdsourcing and other participatory designs) eliminates, or at least minimizes, resistance. That is certainly effective for the conceptual and rollout stages of a new initiative or policy, but many companies then fall short of allowing resistance after the rollout, thereby threatening to undermine the strength of the initial support they had garnered. Alignment is a moving target, and the window for resistance should always be open.

3. Embrace passive and active opposition

On the more passive (and sometimes passive-aggressive) side, employees increasingly find creative ways to sidestep policies and protocol. Take the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) phenomenon, propagated by professionals who simply bypass IT approvals to bring their own preferred mobile devices to the workplace. According to a recent survey by Forrester Research for Trend Micro, 78% of businesses have implemented BYOD programs–and 70% of them cited increased productivity as the main reason.

Creative opposition, in this sense, means raising the accountability for each and every employee. Employees as innovators strive to find better ways of doing business instead of just following the business-as-usual manual. This may result in the traditional corporate functions giving up authority and shifting from being owners to enablers. It’s certainly not an easy transition, but one that pays off in the long term.

Companies could even go a step further and adopt and actively support formats such as House of Genius, a brainstorming session/idea incubator in which participants are anonymous. Why not institute an employee council with members whose identities are not disclosed? They could meet regularly to discuss important company matters and make recommendations, maybe even directly to the board, bypassing the management team. Or launch live-work communes that bring together employees and customers to develop antitheses to the company’s vision and policies? Or conduct internal brand hijacks or product hacks that challenge top-down initiatives and may become powerful counter-movements that prompt a rethink or perhaps even a reset?


It’s important to remember that incorporating creative opposition begins with asking the right questions. What is your company’s “black market”? What is its “underground”? Who are your misfits, your hackers? Who are the people who might want to “occupy” your company? Who is seeing the cracks in your organization and seeking to attack them? Invite them to do so before they invite themselves (and others along with them). Make sure your internal opposition has ample safe space to self-organize, is always close, and utterly creative. Resist the temptation to squash resistance. Bring the renegades into the mix and not into the fold. And remind yourself that occasional disloyalty might be the strongest form of loyalty.

[Image: Fighting Sheep, Pirate Flag, and Warning via Shutterstock]