by Chandra Bricker
October 24, 2019
In 1997, a struggling computer company launched an ad campaign paying homage to the crazy ones. The campaign celebrated troublemakers who "push the human race forward" and "change the world." It encouraged viewers to "think different," and it seems like it worked–after nearly faltering, that computer company is now one of the most highly valued companies in the world. Though the business world thinks differently about Apple today than it did over 20 years ago, it still struggles to understand the value of troublemakers.
Call them what you will–misfits, heretics, rebels, rule breakers, mavericks, disruptors, or as Apple did, the crazy ones. Researchers all over the business world use different words to describe those who challenge the status quo and operate outside the lines. But no matter what you call them, you'd better be sure you have them, because they're the ones who can turn your company around.
In In Defense of Troublemakers, Charlan Nemeth argues that "we can make better decisions by embracing dissent. Dissent forces us to question the status quo, consider more information, and engage in creative decision-making." And she's not alone in her opinion.
Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman wrote a series of business books, including the popular Now, Discover Your Strengths, which introduced the StrengthsFinder test to identify how employees uniquely contribute to their respective organizations. But most people forget that the first book in the series was First, Break All the Rules. Because change always starts with challenging the very structure that's holding you back from growth and transformation.
Carmen Medina, formerly of the CIA, believes that "all change is against the rules." As Medina shares in her research, those employees who push for change "are not your enemy. They are trying to help. They are not your problem—they are the start of your solution."
History supports this claim. Galileo was called a heretic. Rosa Parks refused to follow the rules. America's founding fathers weren’t compliant. And here in Texas, our local heroes Davy Crockett, William Travis, David Bowie, and Sam Houston? Not exactly known for "going along to get along." The revered souls that we celebrate are all well-renowned troublemakers, rule breakers, rebels, and game-changers.
The spark that lights the bonfire. Disruptive innovation comes from those who can see things differently, but also see the value in helping others see things differently—and are effective at creating that shift in others.
They are the brave souls who ask questions, dig into details, and seek to understand the original intent behind policies and practices who then actively invite others into the conversation. They are advocates and influencers who are skilled at bringing people along through the change curve for the sake of growing the company and making it better.
They care. Troublemakers are not disengaged employees. At H-E-B, we have found that our change-makers are our most loyal, faithful, devoted, and engaged employees who are passionate about our company and care about the future. They are often overwhelmed with the ardent need to speak up because they are care so deeply. And we appreciate their voices—as Tim McClure says, "The biggest concern for any organization should be when their most passionate people become quiet."
They’re brave. Troublemakers are not usually rule followers—which gives them the courage to be the 'lone voice crying in the wilderness' when they recognize an opportunity for growth or evolution. They have the nerve to voice dissent. And we welcome the dialogue. We not only appreciate the philosophical debate that explores every angle of a challenge, we value those brave enough to start the conversation.
They are risk-takers. Our troublemakers know that what they are suggesting is edgy, or revolutionary, or scary. They understand that there are some risks, but are 100% confident that with risk comes reward, and, conversely, that stagnancy is death. We are grateful for those who care too much to watch something they love die on the vine.
They are mission-focused. They stand for H-E-B and our purpose. They are not rebels without a cause. They feel duty-bound to stand for what they believe is right – and that includes starting uncomfortable conversations that challenge the way things are done. But, that's what makes them so essential. Daniel Hutler, of the USAF, wrote "innovation is the opposite of policy." Policy is the way we do things, and if you can't challenge that, you can't truly innovate.
They need a home. At H-E-B, we have a long-standing tradition (over 100 years) of "restless dissatisfaction" and we are constantly looking for ways to evolve. We welcome those who challenge the status quo or question why we do things the way we do. It's not always comfortable, but it has proven to be worth the time and energy to engage in thoughtful (and, yes, passionate) discussions exploring every option for the best way forward.
They need empathy. It takes courage to be a troublemaker, so it takes encouragement from peers and leaders to support their maverick ways. At H-E-B, we try to create a safe space for rebellious curiosity, because we know our troublemakers need to identify why things are done a certain way to understand if things can or should be changed.
They need to be listened to and not dismissed. We understand that mavericks are not causing trouble to slow things down or hurt the company—it's in fact the exact opposite. They are trying to make things better by protecting us from groupthink or corporate policies mired in antiquated thinking. They see a different path and want to explore it.
They need runway. Give them some room to try new things. Give them some resources and watch what happens. It may be messy, but they’ll prove a concept soon enough and clean up the process. Give them space to try things and learn.
When troublemakers are truly embraced and encouraged and welcome in any organization, that company enjoys fresh, innovative, game-changing transformation. Here at H-E-B, we are lucky enough to have loyal, brave, passionate employees who care enough to speak up—and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Chandra K. Bricker is Senior Manager of Strategic Communications at H-E-B Digital. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.