The first maverick was a Texas rancher named Samuel Maverick. In his steadfast refusal to brand his cattle, his surname now connotes someone who wilfully takes an independent (and frequently disruptive or unorthodox) stand against prevailing modes of thought and action.
Every organisation has a maverick. By nature, they stand out from the crowd. And while they are often difficult to manage and work with, they are just as often the source of new ideas and business innovation. So is the maverick in your team the worst thing for your company, or the best?
We’ve all seen situations where a maverick wreaks disaster and chaos through an organisation. They can be disruptive, destructive to others’ efforts (sometimes even self-destructive) and often downright rude (viewing politeness as “just another convention”).
There are also situations where a maverick has created a corporate powerhouse against all odds. Richard Branson and Dick Smith serve as good examples. In fact, many of the best known CEOs could be considered mavericks.
Whether we call them mavericks, radicals or contrarians, the quality that makes these people stand out is their resistance to ‘group think’. In an age where technology is continually disrupting accepted paradigms, this quality has become a prized asset.
The fact is there are both pluses and minuses in having a maverick in the ranks. By understanding these, we can create and take advantage of a healthy culture of contrarian thinking.
By their nature, mavericks break group rules. If they really want to achieve a goal, formal processes aren’t going to get in their way. At the extreme, this quality can create the JP Morgan type ‘rogue trader’ who cost the company $2 billion and shook investor confidence.
Mavericks may also be just as likely to break the rules of social convention. If they see a flaw somewhere, they’ll tell you outright without sugar-coating it to protect your sensibilities. This is where things can get murky. Anti-social behaviour can easily be dressed up as contrarian thinking.
Where the maverick is immature and hasn’t learned to separate a healthy independent thinking approach from simply tearing everything and everyone apart, they can be a highly destructive force.
These contrarians disagree with anything and everything just out of habit. They’re often employed for much longer than they should be, because of some technical area of expertise that their business fears losing. Invariably, when they finally are shown the door, it’s discovered that they’re far less indispensable than first thought.
Is it possible to combine maturity, commercial acumen and political sensibilities with a maverick mindset? Absolutely – and the result is a business powerhouse. It’s akin to combining technological innovation with business process innovation – the formula for industry disruption. In fact, the maverick’s ability to discover and develop alternative scenarios for any situation represents a rare type of wisdom, for the most effective solutions are often not the ones that are most obvious.
Often, mavericks don’t answer the question on everyone’s mind, they change the question. When the rest of us are asking how to provide an incremental service improvement, the maverick is thinking about how to revolutionise the service experience, or do away with the service altogether.
Samuel Maverick didn’t try to make branding a little bit more humane. He did the unthinkable and stopped it altogether. As well as alleviating suffering, that strategy meant that he could take any unbranded cattle that strayed his way and claim them as his own! Maverick was using innovation to disrupt his industry back in the 1800s.
I remember one maverick I worked with (his manager described him as “not a team player”). When asked by a client whether a parting CIO should be replaced with a CIO or a CTO, he suggested they should not be replaced at all (normally, a foolish move, but in this specific situation, it made a lot of sense). While the conventional thinker thought they were being creative and open-minded in considering how the position was branded, the maverick blew up the whole foundation of assumptions around the role. In the end, the CEO didn’t replace the CIO.
Harnessing the power of contrarian thinking can lead to dramatic breakthroughs and opportunities. So how can we ensure that we’re using the mavericks among us in the most effective ways? How can we all start to think more like a maverick?
Here are some tips for creating an environment that supports healthy contrarian thinking:
• When using contrarian thinking, explain your thinking process to others. This not only helps people to take your view more seriously, but also provides others with the tools to think differently. Explaining that your thinking is “a logical conclusion”, “takes the idea to an extreme”, “does away with restrictive assumptions” or “looks at the situation through a different lens” helps others to adopt those thinking skills and can trigger an avalanche of new ideas.
• You can also support better group thinking by proposing ‘what if’ questions. For example, if you’re exploring IT customer service models, questions such as “What if we were the best hotel in the world?”, or “What if our customer was our best friend?” can help team members to reframe the situation and think outside the box.
• Spend a day being a contrarian. Examine every significant action and decision and think about alternatives. Some of the scenarios you come up with may be quite humorous. Yes, business is serious stuff, but taking a playful attitude in this exercise could lead to some very creative solutions and give you practice at new ways of thinking.
These approaches won’t turn every employee into a maverick. However, they will deliver some of the benefits of contrarian thinking by allowing thought experimentation and the opening up of new possibilities.
Some of the best ‘out of the box’ solutions and ideas have come from mavericks. Ultimately, it’s a maverick’s sense of rebellion, radicalism and contrarian thinking that has allowed David to take on Goliath, dot-coms to take on and beat established brick and mortars, and other dot-coms to create new industries where there were no brick and mortars.
There is no doubt that the maverick in your team is a pain in the butt. But that maverick might also save your company and lead it to market domination.
Dr Gerald Khoury is the managing director of GK Strategic, working the areas of IT innovation and strategy. He consults to the private and public sectors throughout Asia-Pacific.