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Why You Need "The Deviant" To Bring Innovation into Your Team

By Liz Bentley

As Charles Darwin famously said, “It’s not the strongest who survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most adaptable to change.” All companies are striving to adapt to their changing markets and needs. They are always looking to make shifts ahead of the curve. But while many people like to throw around the words “innovation” and “adaption,” change is difficult and can be a big struggle in organizations.

In our business, we frequently help teams who are looking to adjust to their changing worlds by building their vision, talent and collaboration. In this work we often come across a team member who either is causing conflict or being dismissed by colleagues for bucking the group’s system of thinking. This person is “the deviant” and as Richard Hackman, Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University, so aptly defines it, the deviant “is someone who can help the team by challenging the tendency to want too much homogeneity, which can stifle creativity and learning.” In other words, the deviant sees things differently, is willing to question the necessity and logic of decisions, and is willing to drive for change.

On a conceptual level, having a deviant around sounds great especially since management consultants have been promoting “out the box” thinking since the '80s when the idea went viral. However, when someone actually behaves this way at work, it can really upset people. In fact, I was recently having dinner with two successful businessmen and when I brought up the concept of the deviant, they said, “Yes, that’s the annoying guy we always want to fire.”

But the deviant is important and in some cases critical. As Hackman’s research has shown, teams with deviants outperform teams without them. And here’s why. Deviants:

  • Constantly look for the best way to do something that’s not necessarily the easiest.
  • Don’t get lulled into mediocrity.
  • Are not influenced by ‘group think.'
  • Thrive on curiosity and original thinking.
  • Ask questions others are not wiling to ask.
  • Are not afraid of change.

It can be risky being a deviant because in their push for innovation, they ruffle feathers and create anxiety. The waters are calm, yet they stand up and rock the boat with their questions and calls to consider other options. A common reaction – as summarized by my dining companions – is to shut them down or move them out.

To be a deviant takes great bravery and courage, but to most deviants it’s not a choice. It is a way of life. To them, suppressing their vision is more frustrating than speaking it, which is worth the threat to their popularity. While many people think deviants need to soften their tone, play down their emotion and be less direct, deviants would argue that in doing so, it would reduce their impact and that in order for the team to really think differently, people need to be provoked. Being provoked is not comfortable for people, but they won’t move out of their comfort zone and truly consider changing their thinking unless they are pushed to discomfort.

Here's Why We Dislike Them

It’s simple; they make us uncomfortable! They push the envelope when it looks like it doesn’t need pushing. They turn a seemly productive meeting into a conflict of opinions where emotions rise and people get upset. They force their opinions on us and are persistent in having us see their side. They don’t give up. They don’t always have the best timing, approach or delivery. They make the group so upset that we have to deal with all of the fires they can create around them. We have to try to calm the waters around them while at the same time navigating their force.

Here's Why We Need Them

Deviants have marked the face of time. In many cases it is the deviants in the world who have made great change not only in our thinking but in who we are and how we act – Joan of Arc, Galileo, Gandhi are a few examples which come to my mind. They think differently and they force us to think differently. They provoke us and push us to be better, to be more thorough, to be more creative, to be a better leader and to be an original thinker. Our deviants push us out of our nests and into the world of possibility, and that can make all the difference. We need them because without that we would stay the course even when the course has changed. We would miss opportunity, be afraid of change and lack innovation. The deviant doesn’t allow us to rest on our laurels.

Most importantly, the deviants are unconstrained and think in a way that no one else can. In fact, most people are either not creative enough in their thinking or too afraid to speak about it. We need the deviant not only because can they come up with new ideas and processes but because they insist on being heard. They do not let their voice get drowned out. They make people listen to them because they have conviction in their beliefs.

Here's How To Utilize Them

First off, recognize who they are because they do not always show up looking like Steve Jobs. They are not necessarily going to be the smartest one in the room but they will bring tremendous value. You can easily pick out your deviant because they make you uncomfortable, question your methods and complain about what’s not right. They may seem just like an argumentative or disgruntled employee, but they are not.

Your deviants aren’t trying to hurt you or your business. They are actually trying to make things better. Listen to them and remove your own emotional discomfort. Ask them questions to understand their stance. Let them talk and hear out their thinking. Encourage them to deliver their messaging calmly but don’t crush their passion. Explore their issues and brainstorm around them. Give them projects to take their ideas further and if they aren’t capable of that, just hear them out and think about what they are saying. Don't:

  • Dismiss them.
  • Intimidate them.
  • Punish them when they speak out and share dissenting opinions.
  • Marginalize them.

Millennials - The Deviant Generation

In studying this topic, one parallel I cannot ignore is the connection between the classification of the deviant and the coming of age Millennial. It’s important to be very clear that every generation has created discomfort as they came of age. The Baby Bombers were known as the “Me Generation,” only focused on themselves. And the Gen Xers were the “slacker” generation with no direction or cares.

The Millennials have come into the workplace and pushed people to change their thinking. They want promotions after what other generations think are short periods of time because they want to be challenged, want more responsibility, and don’t want to be bored. They envision a different workplace/office environment; 69% feel going to the office is unnecessary. And for them, working from home is really working. They have a long list of technology shortcuts to get work done quickly, none of which include meeting in person. They have created virtual social and networking environments, and can get work done with headphones on so they don’t need an office with walls for privacy.

The Millennials are the largest generation and by 2025 they will make up 75% of the workforce. 15% of them are already managers. They will change the way we think, do business, position our companies and grow our employees. When we ignore these deviants, they leave our companies and go work somewhere else. We need this generation just like we need all the deviants and we need to embrace them for their great value and ability to make us think differently.

Stay Open To Different Thinking

Don’t be afraid of the discomfort and push beyond your comfort zone. The deviants make us grow when we are not ready to. Honor that, admire them for their bravery and bring them into counsel when making important decisions. Remember the famous saying, “No pain, no gain.” Innovation is not easy to come by; use your deviants to help you live in a world that is ever changing.