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Is Your Organization Fit for Heretics?

by Polly LaBarre on December 13, 2011


polly-labarre's picture

Is Your Organization Fit for Heretics?

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series we're running in conjunction with our friends at Fortune. Called "Fit for Human Beings," the posts will explore what it takes to create organizations that are as resilient, inventive, inspiring, and accountable as the people who work inside of them--with reports from the progressive thinkers and adventuresome practitioners actively wrestling with that question. We hope you'll share your stories and ideas in the comments--we'll publish the best ones here and on Fortune/CNNMoney.

"Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM."

That chestnut has morphed from sales proposition to object lesson on the perils of clinging to convention in less than a generation. We've ditched the dark suits and "sincere" ties of our father's IBM for black turtlenecks and jeans, and we've embraced the "think different" ethos of Apple's celebrated campaign:

"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in square holes. The ones who see things differently."

But how much has really changed? Too many people who would rather spend their working life making a meaningful impact spend their days wading through bureaucratic sludge and toxic politics. Why is it that the same responsible grown-up who can make a decision to purchase a car or a house over the weekend cannot obtain a new desk chair without going through a convoluted permissions process? Why does so much innovation happen in spite of the system, rather than because of it? Why are so many decisions driven by fear rather than conviction?

Why indeed? Because too many people still work in organizations that resemble the IBM of their grandfather's (or great-grandfather's) day--organizations designed to exert tight control at the expense of autonomy, to maximize compliance and conformance over individual expression and discretion, and to promote top-down command over passion-driven performance.

Yet, if we want originality, invention, game-changing disruption—if we want to keep up with the times and stay ahead of the pack—we need to fill our organizations with people who ignore the rules, flout convention, defy the gravity of the status quo, question constantly, and experiment fearlessly. We need the rebels and the troublemakers because, as Apple's Think Different campaign put it, "they change things. They push the human race forward."

Making your organization a home for heretics just might be the best way of making sure it has a future.

That's the case Carmen Medina makes. Medina, who spent her nearly 32-year career "being a heretic" inside the CIA, one of the most tightly controlled organizations on earth, argues that "all change is against the rules." That was certainly true when, as a senior manager of analysts, she championed a disruptive effort to make the U.S. intelligence community more open, connected, and adaptive. That clandestine project became Intellipedia—think wiki for spies—which boasts more than 300,000 users who have contributed some million pages in the last five years and make 15,000 edits and share a million instant messages every day.

In her years making waves at the CIA (she recently retired from her position as director of the Center for the Study of Intelligence), Medina learned a lot about what it takes "to make a difference from the belly of the beast." First, heretics need other heretics. Recalling her early encounters with the leaders of the Intellipedia project, Sean Dennehy and Don Burke, Medina says, "we found each other and formed the rebel alliance." Second, iconoclasts may be inconvenient but they're inevitable in any institution. Bank on it, Medina advises leaders in every realm of endeavor: "you all have heretics. They are not your enemy. They are trying to help you. They are not your problem—they are probably the start of your solution."

It's no coincidence that I met up with Medina at IBM's centennial celebration, where she spoke to an audience of IBMers and high-profile leaders from around the world. Reflecting on the company's vibrancy after a century in business at the event, outgoing CEO Sam Palmisano suggested that what's remarkable isn't IBM's longevity, but its ability to continuously change. In other words, unlike so many once-venerable companies, IBM has escaped the trap of becoming your grandfather's IBM.

It has done so in part by embracing the mavericks in its midst at crucial moments in its history. A classic case in point: When John Patrick, an IBM lifer and corporate strategist, first experienced the Web in the early '90s, he was hooked. He set off on a relentless campaign to convert the company to his vision that the Internet was changing everything and that IBM should play a leading role in that revolution. Patrick broke all kinds of rules, overstepped his bounds (and his budget) repeatedly, crossed lines, and ruffled feathers. He also galvanized an ever-expanding band of believers—including IBM's then CEO Lou Gerstner, who, when presented with an early demo of the corporate website, famously asked: "Where's the buy button?"

An indefatigable evangelist, Patrick employed every tactic to cut through the company's notorious parochialism, convert skeptics, educate the clueless, and jumpstart the complacent. He wrote an electrifying manifesto, recruited a far-flung team of technologists and enthusiasts, surfaced and connected the dots between initiatives from every corner of the company, and resorted to forcing mechanisms when needed (such as the time he spent tens of thousands of unauthorized dollars to buy the most prominent exhibit space at Internet world to showcase IBM's then-fledgling Internet offerings). The result: IBM was widely recognized as an early Internet leader, the company created a booming e-business offering, and Patrick's efforts spawned a diaspora of inspired activists who have made their own waves over the last 15 years.

If a rigidly controlled intelligence agency and a hundred-year-old industrial corporation can welcome (and profit from) heretics, what's stopping you? Medina, Patrick, and the countless mavericks we meet on the MIX offer up a few guidelines for opening up your organization to "the crazy ones:"

Forget the rules—build belief

I asked bestselling author and serial troublemaker Seth Godin what it takes to make an organization safe for heretics. "There's a big difference between religion and faith," he said. "Religion is the set of rules created to maximize the chances that you will do what the manager wants you to do. A heretic is someone who has faith but could care less about religion."

John Patrick dispatched with all of the religious rules that guided IBM at the time—from who got to go to what meeting to what to wear—but his faith in IBM and his dedication to creating the best future for the company never wavered. Heretics aren't just flame-throwers, they're builders. What does this mean for leaders? According to Seth, "what you need to do as a manager, leader or owner is to say: this is our faith and to only hire people who embrace it and suspend the religion anytime it makes sense."

Revel in the fringe

The future doesn't unfold top-down or center-out so much as bottom-up and outside-in. The organizations that are most hospitable to heretics find ways to lay out the welcome mat for fringe elements. Scour your organization and beyond for positive deviants, invite dissent in all of its forms, and stop trying to shape people to fit your mold—instead open yourself to how their distinct point of view, enthusiasms, and eccentricities might reshape you. Spend time with people who are not like you (and who you may not like). Hire "slow learners" (of the organizational code). Create an "artist-in-residence" (or scientist, or young person) position. Design a forum or a regular ritual for people to offer up dissenting points of view.

Remember, you need the heretics—they don't need you

As Carmen Medina argues, heretics exist whether you like it or not (the trick is to learn to like it). An individual equipped with a dream (or even a small fix) and a fire in the belly is only enlivened by institutional resistance. That was certainly the case for Kim Spinder, a Dutch Ministry employee who devised a seemingly simple hack of work with a potentially radical impact: civil servants across the Netherlands are invited to share their workspaces, expertise, and resources via a Web booking system and a set of social tools. Deelstoel ("share chair" in Dutch) doesn't just aim to share space but to align civil servants with each other and with the communities they serve.

Spinder launched the initiative with no money and no permission—and managed to enlist some 400 government offices (and growing) to open their doors, their databases, and share their coffee pots. The program is generating spontaneous connection and "common sense collaboration" among co-workers and constituents who were previously invisible to each other. Spinder's story offers up profound and practical lessons for aspiring mavericks everywhere.


Dear readers: Are you one of the crazy ones? A corporate misfit, maverick, or troublemaker? Do you know anybody who is? Share your story or hack (a bold idea) about the power (or the pitfalls) of heretics at work. How do we make organizations safe for heretics? And how do you drum up the courage to make a difference--even if it means breaking the rules?

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_158's picture
Heretics also are branded devil's advocate sometimes especially in corporates. IBM was one of the first organization in 70's to motivate heretics to speak up also known as "wild ducks"

The question is when the time is dire and deadlines are approaching does heretics help by discussing or arguing with the leader a scenario would be military? Would love some answers on that?

erwin-pfuhler's picture
Polly, congratulations on your article. I really like it. Do we need more heretics or do we need another corporate culture? As long as thinking is unidirectional and decisions are top-down, I fully agree. What we need is more meetings (when it comes to dealing with the big questions) in the style of the World Cafè as Juanita Brown describes it in her book. Companies should not only ask in job descriptions for openess, but they themselves should be open, walk the talk. 
Finally it is all a matter of the value system. Do we embrace change bottom-up? 
People like Carmen Medina and John Patrick, I would prefer to call them change wizards, as it is an outstanding job what they have accomplished.
I myself decided to invest my energy in my own company, than trying to change someone elses game.
frederic-jleconte's picture
I'm on board.
The cost is high (been there, done that), so it is not the kind of role you want to play if you are sensitive to frustration,  but the value is in a different currency. Of high value.
Return on investment is not a given but the bet by itself is the energy source.
My next contribution will be some hack about creating spaces safe enough  for heretics to dare.
If someone was able to do it in the CIA, it should be a piece of cake in "Corporate Inc. Anywhere".
And very nice picky choices of vocabulary Polly.
I had to open my dictionnary...
"Positive deviants" being my favorite nugget and take away.
paul-cesare's picture
This is an outstanding article Polly!

Drumming up the "courage" to make a difference or do the right thing is critical.  Command and control orgnizations intensely repel heretical behavior and intensely encourage codependency/adulation to supervisors.  Command and control orgs beg the question: are employees more accountable to their bosses or to their customers?  I agree with Bobby Bakshi's comment that taking risks is so far from the norm and challenging the status quo is not an employee's first ambition. 
I applaud and honor the wisdom of this article and, most of all, I respect and cherish the "courage" and brillance of the Management Innovation eXchange!
I am doing my part to live the values espoused.  - Paul Cesare    

bobby-bakshi's picture
Thanks for this Polly.  I am facinated by the lack of comments on your post.  Does it say something about the appetite and/or willingness to speak up on the subject?
My 2 cents--in two decades of working at Fortune 100 companies I always found that my heretic was most active once I chose to make a change (e.g. change internal roles or leave).  There's such freedom at those moments of choice.  And then I recognized, what if I operated that way all the time?  Tried things even if they were not popular or their time was not yet?  Shared my perspective even if it wasn't welcome?  This type of taking risks is so far from the norm.  Let's keep chipping away at it--thanks to this community.