In today’s relentlessly competitive business climate, the riskiest strategy of all may be to play it safe. Coming up with a smart idea or a great product may no longer be enough, because if you’re not constantly moving forward you’re falling behind.
But along with the buzzwords like disruption and innovation that often define success in the digital age are others that make many people uncomfortable — like change, nonconformity, and trailblazer. And that just shouldn’t be, says Francesca Gino, the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. After all, embracing discomfort, thinking unconventionally, and breaking established norms are what produced innovative film director Ava DuVernay and Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and unleashed pioneering companies such as Pixar and Google.
Gino draws on her experiences studying the behavior of business leaders and organizations in her new book, “Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life,” to identify the common traits and practices among successful renegades that give them their creative and competitive edge.
In a conversation with the Gazette, Gino explained what rule-breakers do that makes them successful, and the steps people can take to tap into their inner rebel.
GAZETTE: In the book, you talk about rebels as people who practice “positive deviance.” What do you mean by that, and where did your interest in this topic come from?
GINO: For many years, I studied people who cheat and behave dishonestly in organizations, as well as how organizations might prevent problematic rule-breaking. As I was doing this research, I came across stories of people who were breaking rules in a way that created positive change in their organizations and in the world. This type of “positive deviance” involves rule-breaking that’s productive rather than destructive.
I vividly remember the moment when I realized I wanted to write this book. I was browsing the shelves of the Harvard Coop bookstore and came across a book titled “Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef.” As I flipped through the pages, I saw beautiful pictures of dishes that didn’t resemble any of the traditional meals I had while growing up in Italy. In Italy, a country that reveres tradition, recipes are passed on from generation to generation, and you just don’t mess with them. But the Italian chef Massimo Bottura, who wrote the book I was perusing, did exactly that. He studied traditional Italian recipes carefully, but then transformed them into innovative dishes. His three-Michelin-star restaurant, Osteria Francescana, was named the best restaurant in the world in 2016. Rather than breaking rules destructively, he did so constructively. I wanted to learn more about how he did it and how the rest of us can do the same.
GAZETTE: You suggest anyone can be a rebel talent. But isn’t a key reason why people put up with the rebelliousness of a Steve Jobs or a Chef Bottura because of their extraordinary talent and track record of successful boundary-pushing? They’ve proven their iconoclastic ideas work.
GINO: You don’t have to be born a rebel. All of us can use our talents more often in the same way as the successful people you’ve mentioned. In studying rebels across all sorts of businesses, I tried to identify their secret recipe, and came up with five talents that they seem to share: novelty, curiosity, perspective, diversity, and authenticity.
We all have the potential to be rebels, but it’s not easy to break rules. Rebelling means leaving behind what’s comfortable, familiar, and known. It means fighting against what comes naturally to us as human beings — the status quo. Rather than taking traditions or existing procedures for granted, rebels like Chef Bottura question them to create something new. When Greg Dyke became the general director of the BBC in early 2000, for example, he found an organization that was very much troubled. Conventional managerial advice would encourage him to lay out a clear vision and then figure out how to delegate to execute it. Instead, he spent five months traveling to various BBC offices in the U.K., even the most remote ones, where he’d show up in the cafeteria and ask employees how he could be helpful and how they thought the BBC needed to change. Rather than giving orders and dictating answers to the problems he saw, he asked questions. By going against what others expected he would do, he gained everyone’s respect. By the time he set a vision for how the organization should change, employees were eager to help him in the mission.