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Embracing Irreplaceable

How many times have you heard, “everyone is replaceable” or what terrible business practice it is to have anything “sole source”?  I can name a fairly long list of colleagues, just off the top of my head, who would never be replaced should they choose to pursue their dreams elsewhere.  Sure, someone could be hired to replace them, but the connections, passion, and magic they bring to the work would be lost right along with them.

Our industrial society was built around the idea that everything should run like a well oiled machine.  It was the goal.  Having a well oiled machine meant you were doing things right managing your system of cogs and wheels and pulleys – all with their very clearly defined jobs.  The well oiled machine was controllable and predictable.  It was comfortable, reliable.  You could expend a decided upon amount of resources (money, time, etc.) and get your expected amount of output.

Business today is organic and volatile.  It is a living, breathing creature made up of many different types of people, some of whom simply don’t have the ability to perform like a cog.  They are not easily replaced.

What we do with our irreplaceable parts reveals a lot about our core values as leaders. Some fear irreplaceable parts.  What do we do if these parts break or wear out?  Where does that leave us as an organization?  The most logical solution is to rework the machine to be more modular; to ensure that every part can be swapped out at any time to maintain productivity and order.

On the other hand, we can embrace a more contemporary option.  We can see these hard to understand, hard to replace parts for what they are.  We can allow ourselves to see that they bring fresh ideas and positive change – they help us to push the envelope and provide the necessary balance today’s organizations need in order to truly thrive and maintain their competitive edge.  The key to making it all work together lies in understanding how to meet the very different needs of these two groups and how to ignite the passion and drive which fuels organizational success.

Let’s look at the two groups.  On one hand, we have those who thrive in environments of clearly defined roles, responsibilities and expectations.  They are happy when they know exactly what needs to be done and are given the necessary support to complete the tasks at hand.  They value predictability and are easily managed.  This group serves as the lifeblood of an organization.  They provide necessary foundation, security and strength and ensure sustainability.

Then we have the innovators and visionaries – people who thrive in environments which are starkly different from the group above.  They are entrepreneurial dreamers who are happy when they are given the support needed to implement their vision.  They value freedom and flexibility and perform best when they are entrusted with the ability to manage themselves.

Leaders need both of these groups in order to maintain healthy organizations.  Understanding the varied needs of each is not only empowering, it is the surest way to create and sustain an environment where magic happens all around you.  Not understanding the very different needs of these two groups, or the fact that you need both types can be disastrous.  Innovators must be valued for their gifts, not their replaceability or manageability.  Leaders who are comfortable embracing this are far more apt to feel a sense of accomplishment and power than those who cannot.

Innovators perform best when they are able to forge their own path.  They often describe themselves as “having a calling” that is very personal and intrinsically motivating.  Their motivation comes from being able to see their own vision take form, not to breathe life into someone else’s. Because of this, it’s critical that innovators find themselves inside an organization that values their individual vision, and where it fits into the larger goals of the organization.  If the innovator is drawn to building something the organization needs or wants and the organization can provide the support and resources needed to execute the vision, everyone wins.

So, what happens when managers attempt to harness an innovator’s talents and abilities in other ways – to, in essence, separate that person’s talents from the individual?  I have, on occasion, seen this happen.  The expectation is that “you work here and you will funnel your gifts into the things the organization needs most”.  It seems like a fair trade, money for talent, but I have yet to see this play out in a positive way for anyone involved.  In fact, the most devastating thing for an innovator is to be asked to funnel their passion and drive into someone else’s vision or need.  Instead of stoking the fire, it smothers it and all that potential for greatness ends up turning to ash,, quickly blowing away in even the slightest breeze.  New York Times best selling author Daniel Pink talks about these principles at length in his book Drive.

Over the past decade or so, it has been my distinct pleasure to walk a path of discovery on both sides of this concept and also to see some of my most treasured friends do the same.  It has given me a perspective that includes both personal experiences and outsider perspective, all coming together in this post with one goal: to help leaders and managers understand how to ignite their teams in ways that are truly magical.  If you are able to identify your innovators and find ways to support their vision, you will see the world change around you in ways that are truly remarkable.

With sincere gratitude to all the leaders out there who understand and support your innovators!  The world is a better place because of you.

Further Exploration…

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an international authority in personality profiling and psychometric testing, recently wrote a great article for Harvard Business Review that details the 5 characteristics of successful innovators, which are quoted below.  Most notable is trait number five. It’s important to recognize that successful innovation is most often not an individual endeavor.  Successful innovators possess:

  1. “An opportunistic mindset that helps them identify gaps in the market. Opportunities are at the heart of entrepreneurship and innovation, and some people are much more alert to them than others. In addition, opportunists are genetically pre-wired for novelty: they crave new and complex experiences and seek variety in all aspects of life. This is consistent with the higher rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder among business founders.
  2. Formal education or training, which are essential for noticing new opportunities or interpreting events as promising opportunities. Contrary to popular belief, most successful innovators are not dropout geniuses, but well-trained experts in their field. Without expertise, it is hard to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information; between noise and signals. This is consistent with research showing that entrepreneurship training does pay off.
  3. Proactivity and a high degree of persistence, which enable them to exploit the opportunities they identify. Above all, effective innovators are more driven, resilient, and energetic than their counterparts.
  4. A healthy dose of prudence. Contrary to what many people think, successful innovators are more organized, cautious, and risk-averse than the general population. (Although higher risk-taking is linked to business formation, it is not actually linked to business success).
  5. Social capital, which they rely on throughout the entrepreneurial process. Serial innovators tend to use their connections and networks to mobilize resources and build strong alliances, both internally and externally. Popular accounts of entrepreneurship tend to glorify innovators as independent spirits and individualistic geniuses, but innovation is always the product of teams. In line, entrepreneurial people tend to have higher EQ, which enables them to sell their ideas and strategy to others, and communicate the core mission to the team.”

Daniel Pink’s book Drive is a fantastic read, available here

Simon Sinek’s TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” – an absolute MUST watch!

Seth Godin’s book Lynchpin talks about the essential building blocks of great organizations


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