Innovation Rebels

How can you build a team that is innovative, dynamic and capable of finding breakthroughs for tough problems? How can you avoid repeating dreary routines and find sparkling new ideas instead? What can you do to turn a tier 2 team into premium winners? One way is to make sure that among your solid citizens you have a good sprinkling of rebels.

A lot of working discussions or workshops about innovation are blocked by the same situation. The answer from the executive, to which we ask to shake the status quo, often say ‘We have too much respect’. Middle level managers feel too much reverence for the executives in the company to challenge their views and to question the way that things are done. They are used to accepting and implementing decisions that are handed down to them rather than pushing back with better suggestions and radical ideas of their own. The corporate people are polite and you never see graffiti on walls. We then may think the bad attitudes manifested in so many ways in our society might have some upsides. Do we benefit from rebellious employees who challenge assumptions and rudely assert a different point of view? Should we seek to employ more people who are unruly and disrespectful? What we need is not a lack of respect but a lack of deference. In the modern innovative organization, leaders need to earn the respect of their employees because of the values they stand for and not because of their position in the hierarchy. A lack of deference should be encouraged so that anyone can challenge anyone else’s ideas regardless of their status.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo

‘Innovation comes from angry and driven people,’ says Tom Peters. The innovator is not happy with his lot. He is impatient for change. And this can be a problem for successful companies. The natural satisfaction that people derive from success can lead to complacency, which is the enemy of innovation. This is why the innovative leader always engenders a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo. It is all very well telling shareholders that the company is making steady and satisfactory progress but the internal message needs more of an edge. ‘We are doing well but there is much more to be done. We cannot afford to rest on our laurels.’

Often the innovator has to be obsessive to the point of apparent irrationality in pursuit of their dream. They appear insubordinate in opposing convention. Anita Roddick, Trevor Bayliss, James Dyson, Richard Branson and Stelios were all seen as obstinate, angry rebels before they achieved the success that changed their status to visionaries. You have probably seen it yourself – the programmer with the worst attitude is the one who produces the most brilliant code.

Channeling the energy of mavericks

How can you harness the energy of your mavericks? How can you turn negative energy into positive? The answer is to throw down a challenge. Rebels can be very critical so turn the situation around and ask them how they would do things better. Don’t get into an argument with them. Take their ideas on board. Praise them for good proposals. Encourage them to find new and better ways to do things. Thank them for their criticisms but insist that they make positive suggestions too.

Rebels can achieve amazing things. In 1994 John Patrick and David Grossman were determined to galvanise the lumbering giant IBM into a response to the opportunity of the internet. Initially IBM, with its investment in mainframe computers and corporate systems failed to see that the internet was going to revolutionise their world. In this respect they were in good company – even Microsoft missed the importance of the internet at first. Patrick and Grossman saw that here was a trend that their employers could not afford to miss so they launched a subversive internal campaign. They found a network of enthusiasts and activists. They launched a ‘manifesto’ and circulated it by email. They gave demonstrations of the internet’s capabilities to senior executives. They took risks, broke the rules and exceeded their authority. Eventually their pleas were heard, the super tanker turned and IBM became leaders in e-commerce and web services.

You may not give credit to those that respectfully agree with you. Recruit someone with attitude, someone who is prepared to disagree with you and challenge your views. Give candidates hypothetical problems and see if they come up with inventive ideas or routine answers. Look for people with unusual interests and hobbies. Creative people do creative things in their spare time. Bland people watch TV.


Every revolution starts with a rebel. So if you want innovators in your team look for people with some particular bad attitudes – the ones with rebellious, contrary and divergent views. These are people who some might label as troublemakers. They are not negative or cynical – on the contrary they are passionate about their ideas. They do not defer to authority, they are dissatisfied with the status quo, they are impatient for change and they are angry about the obstacles put in their way. Rebellion is the first step to real innovation.


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