Here’s To The Troublemakers

It’s not enough to ask a trusted employee to take a devil’s advocate position; we need authentic dissent from people who genuinely think differently.

Here’s To The Troublemakers

Innovation is a dissent. It is a protest, a rebellion against the tried and true.

ITunes is a dissent. Uber is a dissent. JetBlue is a dissent. Amazon is a dissent. Netflix, Snapchat, SpaceX, and DBS all are dissents.

If you are a challenger brand, dissent is your mission. Everybody working at a challenger has signed up specifically to upend some company, product, or process. Ironically, challengers don’t need or even want dissent from within. Challengers are dissents. Challengers need internal uniformity—a zealous conformity to the mission—in order to get it done.

But established companies are a different story. That very same zealotry in established brands signals stasis; harmony becomes a rationalization for homogeneity. Often we mistake this harmony as a sign of a strong corporate culture—and, in fact, reinforce it by recruiting more like-minded people. But if established companies are to innovate, they need some dissonance. They must seek out voices of rebellion and ensure those voices be heard. They need troublemakers.

In his new book, “Originals,” Wharton professor Adam Grant cites studies that show startups that recruit for cultural fit are the most likely to survive their early stages, but that same blueprint goes wobbly as companies become more mature: “As [mature companies] attract, select, socialize, and retain similar people, they effectively weed out diversity in thoughts and values.” While culturally uniform companies can execute well in stable industries, the benefits of a strong culture are minimized in volatile, fast-moving industries, Grant says. Volatile. Fast-moving. Dynamic. Sound familiar?

In other words, in order to learn and adapt, established companies need a push from their own troublemakers. But troublemakers do not always fit snuggly into a culture, and they are often filtered out in the interview process. Grant suggests that companies shift from recruiting for cultural fit to those who can supplement the culture. It’s not enough to ask a trusted employee to take a devil’s advocate position; we need authentic dissent from people who genuinely think differently. And these people will not be found among the usual places from which you hire.

Innovation does not magically appear with the arrival of new blood, of course. Often the team must unlearn commonly accepted business practices to unearth it. Take this one: Offer solutions, not problems. It has become standard operating procedure. Not so fast. Grant turns the adage on its head: Leaders should be asking for problems, not solutions, he says. A culture that focuses too heavily on the solutions becomes a culture of advocacy, not debate. Debate opens up the possibilities. It surfaces a wider range of possibilities. It is an essential precursor to innovation. And for real debate to happen, there must be genuine dissenters (not half-hearted strawmen).

Grant is a happy warrior in the battle for originality; at heart he is an optimist. His message is clear: Innovation doesn’t just happen. The “eureka moment” is a myth. We are all capable of contributing creatively if we are genuinely open to a wide range of perspectives and are willing to do the work to surface those perspectives. This means you must create a different type of culture—one that encourages dissent over harmony.