If you're like most leaders, you want your company to grow faster and to have fun doing it. What might surprise you is that the youngest professor ever to win full tenure at Harvard Business School says you can achieve these twin aims simultaneously.

The professor in question is Francesca Gino, the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Her book Rebel Talent is among 2018's best business books. Gino's basic premise is that rebels -- people who consciously don't follow the rules, or have great difficulty doing so -- are good for business.

As she explains in her book, rebels reject the idea that there are limits on what they can achieve. And they act in peculiar ways to reach their aims -- they "break, transform, and create."

By their very definition, rebels represent a threat to a leader who has a command-and-control mentality. Such leaders issue commands to their workers and reward the people who carry out those commands the most effectively. If you are such a leader, it seems to me that you'll have trouble hiring rebels and letting them do their thing.

Companies that encourage rebel talent -- who share five traits: novelty, curiosity, perspective, diversity, and authenticity -- achieve better outcomes. For instance, Gino cites studies that tie novelty to engagement at work. A case in point is Pal's Sudden Service, a burger chain in Tennessee and Virginia known for fast service and low turnover, where employees are continually challenged to do new tasks.

Here are three principles leaders should follow to get the benefits of rebel talent:

1. Encourage constructive dissent and open conversations.

It has long puzzled me why leaders hire talented people and try to squelch their creativity. Leaders do this in overt and subtle ways.

In the extreme, they fire or sideline people who disagree with their decisions. More subtly, they encourage people to come up with creative solutions and then ignore their ideas. 

If you want the benefits of rebel talent, you have to commit to leading an organization that is looking to win -- by offering up the industry's best solutions to customer problems. Once you agree to that, you should also recognize an important corollary: You don't need to be the only one coming up with new ideas.

2. Go back to the fundamentals.

How can you lead your rebel talent to develop such new ideas? For starters, you should push your people to know more than anyone else. Ask them to investigate customers' most annoying unsolved problems, what technologies are emerging to solve them, and how upstarts are tackling these challenges.

Then, encourage them to come up with new ideas. Ask probing questions when they present their solutions. Open up the discussion to everyone in your organization to develop the best solutions.

In my decades of consulting experience, I've found that winning answers come from getting a detailed understanding of three basic questions:

  • What factors -- like price, quality, ease of use -- do customers use to choose which company's product to buy?
  • How well do customers perceive that your company's rivals perform on each of these factors?
  • What capabilities -- such as product development, manufacturing, and service -- does your company need to outperform its competitors?

To tap the problem-solving talent of your rebels, encourage them to rethink everything to answer those fundamental questions in unique ways.

3. Design workplaces that enable collaboration.

People working together can develop better solutions than any individual. A leader can encourage such collaboration within her team. But some of the best teamwork comes from people meeting and discussing solutions through random interactions in the workplace.

This brings to mind the origin of the word trivia -- which comes from the Latin for "three roads." The idea is that people from different places heading to different destinations would meet where three roads intersected and share gossip.

Gino argues that such random interactions can also yield valuable new ideas from collaboration among rebels. A case in point is Apple's headquarters -- the Apple Park -- which is divided into modular sections, known as pods, that are used for office work, teamwork, and social activities. These pods help employees build connections and discover mentorship opportunities. Perhaps the pods will help Apple come up with its next big thing.

Published on: Dec 11, 2018