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Flying Your Freak Flag

Sometimes we encounter folks in the course of business that are pushing the envelope on the logic of the day.  I affectionately refer to the people as flying their ‘Freak Flag’.

The definition of freak flag from Urban Dictionary:

Freak Flag:

a. A characteristic, mannerism, or appearance of a person, either subtle or overt, which implies unique, eccentric, creative, adventurous or unconventional thinking.

b.  Unrestrained, unorthodox or unconventional in thinking, behavior, manners, etc. One who espouses radical, nonconformist or dissenting views and opinions that are outside the mainstream.

Regardless of how annoying, weird, abrasive, or disruptive to the status quo we find these people they are critically needed to push forward the ideas that lead to real innovation.  They challenge us to think beyond our current mindset for what is acceptable or more importantly for what is possible.   When you choose to dig deep and try to understand why this person is segmenting themselves from the norm you will learn they have a real passion that drives them.   To harness this passion and make it a productive force in your organization is the ultimate challenge.  Be too tight and you will stifle their creativity; Be too loose and it can truly cause havoc in your organization.

The best example of successfully allowing the creative passion of your organizational ‘freaks’ drive innovation was detailed by Gary Hamel in his 2001 HBR article Waking Up IBM: How a Gang of Unlikely Rebels Transformed Big Blue.   Hamel details how David Grossman waved his freak flag by extolling the virtues of this new fangled thing called the internet.  Grossman’s discontent with IBM being passed by on this new technology drove him to wake up the organization and ultimately lead to a makeover of IBM.

How to deal with the Freaks in your organization.

1. Don’t treat their mis-haps has failures, rather learning opportunities.  There will be times that they let the freak flag fly a little too high and push you over the edge.  It is important to remember they are only expressing their passion and maybe got a little too excited trying to achieve the best result possible for the organization.  Any moment can be a learning moment, make it one.

2. Learn and understand what their passion is, what is it that is driving them.   Only by understanding the concrete that this freak flag is planted in will you be able to engage them to drive innovation in your organization.   Of course you will also find out if they only wear green because they believe everyone should eat brussels sprouts for lunch.   Unless you are a produce farmer this may not fit in your organization and you will be able to know this for sure without speculation.

3. Write a manifesto together.  This does not need to be the next great work of the publishing world but five to ten bullet points about what is driving the passion and how it impacts the organization. Consider this the boundaries or rules you can live with. 
David Grossman’s manifesto:

  1. Start simple; grow fast.
  2. Trial by fire.
  3. Just don’t inhale (the stale air of orthodoxy).
  4. Just enough is good enough.
  5. Skip the krill (go to the top of the food chain when you’re trying to sell your idea).
  6. Wherever you go, there you are (the Net has no bounds).
  7. No blinders.
  8. Take risks; make mistakes quickly; fix them fast.
  9. Don’t get pinned down (to any one way of thinking).

4. Be open to change and adaptability.  This is a grand experiment you are leading and you need to be able to change quickly to new developments, successes and failures.  Don’t over react to any movements good or bad, just keep and open mind.

5. Focus on small, achievable wins.  Your organizational freak will be pushing for big wins which is what gets them excited in the first place.  Focus their energy on small wins so the organization can come around to new ways of thinking.  It is unlikely that just one freak is able to come up with this great idea on their own.  However once they put a few wins on the board you can start to bring others into the process and gain from their creative ideas.  As IBM found you can establish a positive feedback loop rather quickly that will spur some great innovation in your organization.

freak, freak flag, innovation, organizational change