Please do disturb us: Disruptive Talent at Work


This week, the Twittersphere has got me thinking about iconoclasm, isolationism, individuality and cultural integration (among other things, like the size of J K Rowling’s hedges).

These thoughts have been sparked by two articles – a BBC News one on ‘disruptive talent’, and one from The Economist on the ‘Empire of the Geeks’ in Silicon Valley. And it’s the relationship between the two that’s really got me thinking.

The basic thrust of the piece on disruptive talent comes from Sir Richard Branson saying more companies should hire more “independently-minded, rule-breaking, stubborn people like himself,” and that, though those kinds of people may be difficult to work with, the opportunities they provide for new ideas and drive far outweigh those difficulties.

The second article, about Silicon Valley, is a cautionary tale that follows on very neatly from Branson’s philosophy.

Silicon Valley is full of maverick, iconoclastic people – ripping up rulebooks and inventing genius ideas that are radically changing our world and daily lives – but, the article argues, there is a danger in the isolationist (elitist) tendencies of the ‘Empire of the Geeks’ when their work output can have such profound effects on a world they don’t feel particularly connected to (or worse, feel superior to).

Are the geeks really thinking about the consequences of what they’re doing – or just doing it because it can be done (because they can do it)?  

Is Silicon Valley what happens when disruptive talent is left to run riot?

It certainly makes a great case for the power of disruptive talent to create game-changing, world-shaping ideas (and ideas that lead to colossal commercial success).

And should we really worry about their isolationism if it results in new technologies we find we can’t live without? Shouldn’t we just let them get on with it and enjoy the results?

One of the suggested strategies put forward to employers for managing more disruptive talent in their organisations is, indeed, to keep them isolated.

It sounds very counter-intuitive – aren’t we all trying to create organisational cultures that are inclusive, that generate great ideas through bringing together people with a diversity of skills and experiences?

But again, should we really worry if there’s a hangar somewhere full of maverick people whom we don’t often see, who might not be all that fun to work with, but generate brilliant ideas and commercial success that we can all enjoy the results of?

My inclination is yes, we should, and worry for a number of reasons.

My first concern is the around the wielding of power.

If you’re hired in on the premise of being disruptive talent, isn’t that carte blanche to behave exactly as you like, regardless of the consequences (as long as you’re ‘innovating’ and making money)?

If you’re coming up with great ideas but not connecting with the people that might need to implement them, or concerned about how they need to implement them, doesn’t that increase the risk for further hubris and high-handedness (not to mention, operational ineffectiveness)?

And what about the power that is found in the wisdom of crowds?

Surely we should all strive to be independently-minded, to be able to use our own experiences and wisdom to draw our own conclusions about things, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to others or be so stubborn as to never yield, even in the face of new information.

History tells us power in isolation can be a very dangerous thing – resulting in despots and dictators. I’m not sure it’s any better (or less dangerous) in the workplace.

My second big concern relates to culture.

Hands-up here. For many people I’ve worked with over the years, I would probably fit their definition of disruptive talent exactly.

I’m very passionate about my ideas (and I have a lot of them); I’ve always been very outspoken (even in school – I spent a lot of time outside classroom doors); and I can be, if I’m really honest, not always the easiest person to work with (or live with for that matter!).

It’s alright for us creative types. We’re half expected to be a bit of a diva. Creatives are allowed to be disruptive talent – it’s in the job description. And, as ‘ideas’ people, it makes sense not to tie them down in too much operational or people management responsibility (but I don’t think it’s healthy to live in a bubble either).

The thing is though, you can’t be so purist as to only have disruptive talent in inward-facing research, development and design (‘ideas’) functions; we need disruptive talent in all areas of business, especially in people management.

So how does that work if it’s not such a good idea to fully integrate ‘disruptive talent’?

And even as a (possibly, sometimes a little diva-ish) creative, one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that, much as my outspokenness can be a very positive thing in moving ideas on, tackling issues etc., my tendency to dominate can shut other less confident, perhaps less definite, people down.

I’ve worked on that a lot (and continue to work on that) – and the reason is my fear of waste. I hate waste. Waste is such a waste. And how many great ideas, or important modifications, or alternative insights that could throw everything into a new light get wasted because people don’t feel they can put them forward. Particularly if there’s a more dominant presence in the room.

Would having more self-proclaimed disruptive talent actually shut down the vast majority of the working population within an organisation, giving a sense of ‘they [the disruptors] are employed to have out-there opinions, the rest of us need to keep schtum’?

Don’t we want everyone to be a little disruptive if they see things that aren’t working or could be better? Without fully integrating all talent within a culture, you run the risk of ending up with lots of different micro-cultures (and often, no simpatico between them).

And, finally, I’ve got one other big worry about the notion of disruptive talent, and that’s about the notion of difference.

We’re all different. We’re all mavericks in our own weird little ways. And we all have to work with people who aren’t ‘like us’.

Of course, we don’t always embrace that (or even acknowledge it). There are plenty of managers who only recruit in their own perceived likeness; there are plenty of businesses where everyone seems to have been shaped by the same cookie cutter. Often that creates a sense of harmony; often, over time, commercial stagnation too.

I agree with Branson (and who am I to disagree?) that businesses need to be a lot braver in hiring less conventional, ‘safe’ people – businesses need people with passion and ideas and drive and opinions and imagination and a sense of limitless possibilities. Safe doesn’t deliver that.

But the disruptors also need to learn how to rub along happily with others too.

If you’re a complete maverick and really can’t stand to make the compromises working with other people necessitates, like Branson, you’ve got to go it alone and set up your own thing.

I think there’s a lot to be said though for getting to grips with your own ‘difference’ and learning to respect, and work with, others’ differences too.

Self-awareness is the path to maturity, and knowing you’re not always that easy to be around might help you a) rein in some of those behaviours and/or b) at least have the grace to apologise for them after the event and let others know you know you have weaknesses. A little humility can be a very powerful thing.

In the BBC News article on Branson’s disruptive talent, he freely admits that he would be a difficult employee for any boss to manage. With that mature self-awareness, maybe Branson today wouldn’t be as difficult to manage as he thinks.

This blog first appeared on 24th July 2015

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