BY SUNNY BONNELL AND ASHLEIGH HANSBERGER 7 MINUTE READ
Innovation. It’s a word so central to success in business that it’s almost talismanic. It brings to mind images of Nikola Tesla slaving away in his Shoreham, N.Y. workshop, or Jobs and Woz cobbling together the first Apple computer in a Cupertino garage.
Innovation is the engine that powers the economy, mints unicorns, and billionaires, and gives us brands that have become verbs: Google, Uber, Zoom. Just about everybody in every business wants to be an innovator—or, at least, knows the First Commandment of modern business: innovate or disappear.
While corporate leaders know innovation is their lifeblood, many don’t really know how to do it. Linda Bernardi, a technologist, entrepreneur, speaker, and coauthor of the books The Inversion Factor: How to Thrive in the IoT Economy and Provoke, says when she takes questions from her audiences, half are from eager but frustrated senior executives pleading to know the secret formula. “They ask me, ‘Linda, how do I innovate?’” she tells us. “It’s shocking that a way of thinking that should be the core of many companies’ success is still such a mystery.”
Truthfully, it’s no mystery. The corporate world has always been a stew of contradictions. Most leaders are preoccupied with fit, the idea that hiring folks whose personality and values click into their culture like Legos is the key to building a tribe of warrior-poets who’ll lift them to a billion-dollar market cap.
Meanwhile, many of those C-suiters talk like they have Apple’s “Think Different” ad copy about rebels and troublemakers tattooed on their forearms. They ache to be swashbuckling, Branson-esque visionaries who define eras, transmogrify markets, and squirrel away enough stock options to buy a private island while they’re at it.
The bottom line is that companies are desperate to become more innovative. In the recent BCG Most Innovative Companies survey, the share of companies reporting innovation as a top-three priority jumped ten percentage points to 75 percent, the largest year-over-year increase in the fifteen years of the survey. But if you’re leading one of those organizations, you might feel trapped between conformity and innovation. You can’t have both, but which do you choose?
In more than fifteen years of running our award-winning branding agency, we’ve noticed a pattern. Organizations that consistently display fearless creativity and set the pace in their industry typically have leaders who don’t play well with others. They’re obsessive, oppositional, audacious, and socially maladroit. However, they’re also wired to see beyond the limitations of the present, challenge conventional wisdom, and break what should be broken. For all their quirks and sharp elbows, they approach problems and solutions with blinding originality.
We call such people the Rare Breed. That’s who to choose.
THE RARE BREED
Rare Breeds value truth and individuality over conformity. They are out of the ordinary and outspoken, unapologetically moving in one direction while the herd moves in the other. Rare Breeds are the ones who realize visions other people insist are impossible. They rebel against business-as-usual and never let “the way things are” get in the way of “the way things could be.” Their nerve and imagination open up rich veins of opportunity for others. Although they can make some people uncomfortable by saying what others won’t, Rare Breeds also show up every day as the highest, most impactful, most honest versions of themselves, inspiring those around them to do the same.
Rare Breeds are people whose defining traits parents, teachers, mentors, and bosses have long derided as vices. Instead, we reframe them as virtues, and in our book, Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different, we identify seven of them:
- Rebellious. People with zero tolerance for what doesn’t work, who push against authority, precedent, and the word of experts to see how hard they push back.
- Audacious. Brimming over with hubris and the sense that they have capabilities others lack, they’ll gleefully dare the impossible, especially if you tell them it’s impossible.
- Obsessed. They’re the ones who work 72 hours without sleep, scribble equations on the walls of the shower, agonize over punctuation…and create greatness.
- Hot-Blooded. People with passions that run so deep nothing else matters. They’re activists, champions, avengers, and people you don’t want to cross.
- Weird. Nerds. Geeks. Habitués of maker fairs, comic cons, and silent film festivals. They see the world from odd angles and through strange filters and are often brilliant.
- Hypnotic. People with disconcerting levels of charisma, who find it easy to sway and spellbind others up to—and sometimes, beyond—the point of manipulation.
- Emotional. Wearing their hearts on their sleeves, these are the empaths, the ones who weep at everyone’s pain but also find joy in the small things.
Rare Breeds power innovation because they’re motivated by different things than the typical employee. They care less about fitting in, climbing the ladder, or avoiding criticism than they do about being true to themselves. Yes, they want to be appreciated and to belong, because they’re human, but if being part of the tribe means pretending to be something they’re not, they’ll ditch the tribe.
This makes Rare Breeds your greatest assets, because they’ll approach design questions, technical problems, marketing messaging, or financial conundrums from a direction no one else in your organization will even think to consider. They’re your secret weapon.
THE RARE BREED ORGANIZATION
But the real value of Rare Breeds may lie in their power to transform organizations with what we call the Rare Breed Mindset. If you’ve been a conventional, by-the-book thinker all your life, you can’t just snap your fingers and start thinking like a changemaker. It’s frustrating and it limits how innovative you can be. But if you can’t develop a disruptor’s mentality, you can always import it by bringing Rare Breeds into your organization.
Because they spit on precedent and relish the chance to sabotage mediocrity, these people will take you and your team down creative roads you didn’t even know you wanted to travel. But they will also change how your organization thinks—and by giving you a fresh framework to look through, change how you think as well. Working side by side with Rare Breeds, you’ll not only alter limiting patterns and improve your risk tolerance, but you might also even fall in love with outrageous risk-taking.
Alan Harder, founding partner of Tango Financial in Vancouver, BC, agrees. As he wrote in an interview:
“Established, old-guard businesses require these out-of-the-box thinkers and misfits to fuel innovation. I sifted through loads and loads of resumes when I first started my business. Hiring someone who didn’t have the best CV may have looked like a bad idea at the time, but it turned out to be a wise option. These misfits are the ones who shake things up in the meeting room with out-of-this-world ideas. They may not fit the mold. but they are out of the ordinary and that’s what makes hiring the ‘wrong’ people a good thing.”
A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD
But we’re not naïve. Rare Breeds are complicated. Their virtues have a dark side, too. An obsessed manager can drive an entire department to burnout, while a rebellious individual contributor could turn an orderly team into an angry mob.
Rachel Sklar, a founder of The Li.st, a community of women, femme, and non-binary entrepreneurs, says that under some circumstances, such antisocial misfits can inflict real damage, while the traits that make a Jobs or a Musk so admired are less tolerated if attached to someone not white and male.
“I really wonder how long volatile geniuses who aren’t white men last in various workplaces? Do they count as volatile once they get to the top, or are they just the boss? Steve Jobs casts a long shadow as the archetype of this—and I definitely love my iPhone—but there is a spectrum of harm that these people cause.”
WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
So, how do you harness the incredible potential of Rare Breeds without stressing your culture or sending your buttoned-down employees scurrying for the exits? Dr. Denise M. Rousseau, H.J. Heinz II a professor of Organizational Behavior and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, says one solution is to recruit for talent, and then manage whatever package of odd mannerisms that talent comes wrapped in.
“I’d start with this—does somebody bring special talents? What does it take to tap those talents if they’re a nerd or they have Asperger’s or they’re an antisocial person, or they don’t bathe and won’t bathe? They may well be presenting some talent, so start with the talent. That’s the most important thing organizationally: ‘This person brings something to us.’”
“Take the person who is talented, nerdy, difficult, smelly, oppositional, disruptive at meetings,” Rousseau continues. “But boy, when they ask a question, you go, ‘Wow.’ We need those people. The idea is that we channel them, but we protect the rest of the organization from their more disruptive or antisocial tendencies. There are entire departments in tech companies made up of people who are high-functioning Asperger’s, and they’ve got often somebody from HR or a local line manager who helps them relate and represents their work to the rest of the organization. Think channel. Think broker. You’re creating an island of misfit toys.”
There’s that word again. Misfit. It used to be something companies avoided, the agent of chaos, the square peg in the round hole. But if you’re searching for innovation’s secret ingredient, then finding people who don’t fit, won’t conform, and are ready to speak up and stand out might be the key to everything. Conformity isn’t what you need.
You need the Rare Breed.
Sunny Bonnell and Ashleigh Hansberger are the founders of Motto and authors of Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different.