Keep your creative mavericks alive

Keep your creative mavericks alive

This article is part of THNK EVERGREENS. In the Evergreen series, we leverage seminal works on innovation management and works by influential thinkers, by extracting key implications and offering new insights to innovation practitioners. This article builds on Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning by James G. March.


Most organizations face significant resistance against hiring external creative mavericks. The common fear is that attracting this external creative talent is the same as admitting defeat or, worse, dismissing internal expertise. However, a genuine interest and an openness to what the external world can bring in terms of new ideas is invaluable. While executive hiring/recruiting typically centers on adding a “safe pair of hands”, the opposite is needed for breakthrough innovation. When external talent is hired, the procedure is often for them to learn about the organization and its businesses before making any suggestions for change. We argue the contrary.


March observes that most firms experience two types of learning: that which is done through know-how and the insights it brings, and that which comes from learning through socialization within its members (i.e., adapting to the organizational norms, values, and knowledge – “the organizational code”).


Wanting to find the optimal balance between exploiting existing knowledge and identifying relevant new information, March examines how this mutual learning occurs. His research shows that optimal learning happens when organizations learn fast, and new employees learn slowly. In today’s turbulent business environment, organizations are doomed unless turnover is introduced, whereas new ideas keep the organization on a path of constant exploration.

Keep Your Mavericks Alive 4
New ideas keep the organization on a path of constant exploration. Click To Tweet

Hiring slow learners

According to March, individuals that rapidly adapt to the organizational code are offset by “second-order losses”, because organizations only learn from those who deviate from it. While it may be nice for firms to employ people that quickly get into the company groove, the result can often be of foregoing all of the fresh insights that only someone who is not yet adjusted can bring.

This means that organizations need “slow learners” to avoid creative dead-lock. Slow learners are your organizational mavericks, creative minds, and risk-takers – people that bring a fresh set of eyes and ideas. They think and act differently from what you might be used to, are not afraid to ask critical questions, disagree with existing practices, and challenge the status quo. As March says, optimal learning occurs when people are encouraged to think independently and the organization listens – only slow, individual learning allows for this.

creative mavericks
Optimal learning occurs when people are encouraged to think independently and when the organization listens. Click To Tweet

Going down together

When it comes to innovation, the saying “united we stand, divided we fall” simply does not apply.  On the other hand, an entire company of devil’s advocates also won’t work. Establish which few will stay on the cutting edge and keep your business afloat.

The hesitation to hire people whose brains are wired differently makes sense: we are cognitively trained to like people that are like us. We fear that which we do not understand. This makes surrounding ourselves with people that think and act like us safe and easy. However, companies with a diverse make-up (e.g., more gender and age diversity) fare better. Diversity directly impacts innovation. Though probably challenging and frustrating at times, the rewards greatly outweigh the alternative.

One reason startups tend to fail is because founders hold onto their vision – and each other – too firmly. Deeply convinced about their strategy and vision and taught to not give up when the going gets tough, they become stuck in their way of thinking and doing things. Before they know it, they are running a sinking ship. By keeping a constant flux of new input, new ideas and new people, they can organize your business for constant renewal.

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