Field Notes on Innovation and Intrapreneurship (issue #9) — On rebels with a cause

Mark Storm
8 min readNov 20, 2016

Field Notes on Innovation and Intrapreneurship is a series of posts written for Intrapreneurship World. Issue #9 was published on November 10th, 2016.

On rebels with a cause

Being a rebel with a cause will boost your career and enrich you personally, says Francesca Gino, who is “a curious behavioral scientist” and a professor at Harvard Business School.

In a recent survey she conducted of more than 2,000 employees across a wide range of industries, nearly half the respondents reported working in organizations where they regularly feel the need to conform, and more than half said that people in their organizations do not question the status quo. Another survey among high-level executives and midlevel managers showed similar results. “As this data suggests, organizations consciously or unconsciously urge employees to check a good chunk of their real selves at the door. Workers and their organizations both pay a price: decreased engagement, productivity, and innovation,” Gino writes in Let Your Workers Rebel on Harvard Business Review.

These results however, aren’t surprising. “For decades the principles of scientific management have prevailed,” Gino argues. “Leaders have been overly focused on designing efficient processes and getting employees to follow them. Now they need to think about when conformity hurts their business and allow — even promote — what I call constructive nonconformity: behavior that deviates from organizational norms, others’ actions, or common expectations, to the benefit of the organization.”

Jackson Pollock — Rebel With A Cause. (PEEK Films for Christie’s, 2013)

In one of Gino’s field studies, she asked a group of employees to behave in nonconforming ways — speaking up if they disagreed with colleagues’ decisions, expressing what they felt rather than what they thought they were expected to feel, and so on. She asked another group to behave in conforming ways, and a third group to do whatever its members usually did. After three weeks, those in the first group reported feeling more confident and engaged in their work than those in the other groups. They displayed more creativity in a task that was part of the study. And their supervisors gave them higher ratings on performance and innovativeness.

Yet, despite the evident, and sometimes even surprising benefits, very few leaders actively encourage deviant behavior in their employees; most go to great lengths to get rid of it. So, the obvious question is: how can we change this? How can we enable leaders to promote constructive nonconformity?

Leaders shouldn’t ask, “Who agrees with this course of action?” or “What information supports this view?” Instead they should ask, “What information suggests this might not be the right path to take?”

Gino provides us with six strategies that foster constructive nonconformity. One of them is to voice and encourage dissenting views. “We often seek out and fasten on information that confirms our beliefs [confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities],” Gino writes. “Yet data that is inconsistent with our views and may even generate negative feelings (such as a sense of failure) can provide opportunities to improve our organizations and ourselves. Leaders can use a number of tactics to push employees out of their comfort zones.” She suggests to look for disconfirming evidence, create dissent by default, or identify courageous dissenters.

But of course, disconfirming evidence doesn’t present itself. So, that’s why curiosity — the impulse to seek out new ideas and experiences — is the most important trait for rebel talent. Few organizations think systematically about it. One exception is the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder, which has developed a robust way to assess curiosity, both in its own employees and in the candidates it proposes to clients. Its research showed, amongst others, that curiosity triggers a direct response to situations that challenge our assumptions. Our capacity to question unlocks the potential for change that such situations represent. By encouraging employees’ curiosity — and nurturing that quality in themselves — organizations unleash their potential to adapt and grow.

The problem with curiosity however, is that it depends on what you already know. Curiosity is not just wanderlust but rather a function of motivation plus direction. It peaks when you have a good guess about the answer but aren’t quite sure. The sweet spot for curiosity seems to be a Goldilocksian level of information — not too much nor too little.

According to Celeste Kidd, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester, the way our brains instinctively seek ‘just right’ levels of novelty is a bit like going to a bookstore. “You wouldn’t want to pick a children’s book, or a book you’ve read a lot before,” Kidd explains. But if you choose a book you can’t penetrate at all, like, say, a Russian textbook on astrophysics, you hit a similar problem. “That’s not going to be very interesting.” To learn, you have to have something to grab onto. The next handhold can’t be too far from the last — you might never reach it. So as your brain pushes you to gather information as quickly as possible, it instinctively steers you away from gaps that are too small, or too large.

If you want to know more about curiosity, buy yourself a copy of Ian Leslie’s book Curious. The The Desire to Know & Why Your Future Depends On It.

“Like the links on a Wikipedia page, curiosity builds upon itself, every question leading to the next. And as with a journey down the Wikipedia wormhole, where you start dictates where you might end up. That’s the funny thing about curiosity: It’s less about what you don’t know than about what you already do.” — Zach St. George in Curiosity Depends on What You Already Know.

According to Marty Neumeier in Dreaming: A Metaskill for the Future, our most important metaskill [a metaskill is a skill that magnifies and activates other skills] in a period of great change, such as the one we’re living in now, may be imagination. “Imagination lets us invent new business models, create differentiated brands, and reframe a growing number of problems as opportunities. Yet it’s also our most mysterious skill. How is it possible to conjure up images, feelings and concepts that we can’t perceive through our senses?”

Imagination is the child of obstinacy and playfulness: it comes from a refusal to settle for the comfortable answer while having fun doing it. Imagination takes as long as it takes, and rushing it usually slows it down. You simply can’t decide to produce an insight in 30 minutes, or to have an idea by 3:15. “This is the central conflict between the world of business and the world of creativity. They need each other, but can’t seem to understand each other. They’re working in two different kinds of time,” Neumeier writes.

The solution to this dilemma is for business ‘doers’ and creative ‘dreamers’ to focus on goals instead of deadlines. Goals form the common ground that unites both workstyles. “Focus on goals, take away the clocks, and start playing as soon as possible. What you’ll find is that generating ideas ‘out of time’ can produce results much faster than holding yourself to a deadline.”

“Here’s where quantity plays a crucial role. The best creative thinkers are usually the most prolific ones, because innovation, like evolution, depends on variety. In fact, you could say that innovation is really just ‘evolution by design’. The more ideas you have, the better your odds that two of them will combine to create a useful third idea.” Einstein called this combinatory play.

“It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.” — Gertrude Stein

Just like Francesca Gino, also Neumeier provides us with six strategies; in his case to help trigger new ideas. One of my favorites is poaching from other domains.Voltaire said, ‘originality is nothing but judicious imitation.’ What could be more judicious than stealing ideas from other fields? While doing this is not the same as pure imagination, it still takes a mental leap to see how an idea from one industry or discipline might be used in another.” For example, Henry Ford got the idea for a moving assembly line from the meat-packing industry in Chicago and Cincinnatti. The calligraphy classes college dropout Steve Jobs took later inspired him to design “beautiful typography” into the Mac.

“Originality doesn’t come from factual knowledge, nor does it come from suppressing factual knowledge: it comes from the exposure of factual knowledge to the animating force of imagination. Sadly, the metaskill of dreaming — the ability to cut ideas out of whole cloth — is not currently taught in business schools — or any other school. This seems downright odd in an age when innovation is the dividing line between success and failure. With any luck, this situation will change. A person can dream.”

If you want to know more about Neumeier’s five metaskills — feeling, seeing, dreaming, making, and learning — I suggest reading his book Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age.

A few random finds …

“So if you want to make your organization more innovative or become more innovative yourself, the best thing you can do is go looking for good problems. Talk to customers. Follow a passion. Go and study a completely different subject. Travel. Take up a hobby. Do whatever it takes, but go out and find a problem that you can devote yourself to. Revolutions don’t begin with a slogan. They begin with a cause.” — Greg Satell in The Most Important Thing That Great Innovators Do Differently.

“Ever since the publication of Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, 25 years ago, companies have sought to become ‘learning organizations’ that continually transform themselves. In our era of digital disruption, this goal is more important than ever. But even the best companies still struggle to make real progress in this area.

One problem is that they’ve been focused on the wrong thing. The problem isn’t learning: it’s unlearning. In every aspect of business, we are operating with mental models that have grown outdated or obsolete, from strategy to marketing to organization to leadership. To embrace the new logic of value creation, we have to unlearn the old one.

Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. When we unlearn, we step outside the mental model in order to choose a different one.” — Mark Bonchek in Why the Problem with Learning Is Unlearning.

“Organizations don’t transform. People do. Too often executives think change can be engineered without putting their own skin in the game. “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself,” Leo Tolstoy said.

Leaders must find a new sense of maturity within themselves to address the ongoing culture shift with greater clarity and intention. Those who insist on digging deeper trenches to withstand the new reality will eventually reach a point where they can no longer see the evolving landscape in front of them. As a consequence their organizations will become obsolete. Unfortunately, there is no app to make up for such blindness.” — Kenneth Mikkelsen in Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes.



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought