Making room for the maverick

Innovation is the supposed bedrock of many a go-ahead New Zealand company, the most repeated term in their corporate communications. But how many of them really understand how to manage 'mavericks', the creative troublemakers who nevertheless often get good things done and bad things changed?

Managing the Mavericks by Kay Thorne (Spiro, $55)

Innovation is the supposed bedrock of many a go-ahead New Zealand company, the most repeated term in their corporate communications.

But how many of them really understand how to manage "mavericks", the creative troublemakers who nevertheless often get good things done and bad things changed?

Personally, I believe New Zealanders are very tolerant, but -- unlike our cousins across the ditch -- most quietly wish "stirrers" (ones we disagree with, anyway) would just shut up or go away.

In 2001, Kay Thorne asked readers of an UK HR magazine who described themselves as maverick to email her for a questionnaire. While the pitfalls of self-selection using such a subjective personal description are obvious, and fished up a number of responses that she acknowledges was internationally widespread but "not statistically significant", she's managed to parlay the results into a readable and useful book. Must try that one.

Thorne, a British training and HR specialist, says she wrote the book because she and her subjects care passionately about people, their work environment and the right of every individual to achieve their potential. Yet what perplexes them is why, when the attitudinal and behavioural strategies they ask for are so simple and achievable, they are so seldom put in place.

Innovation is hard, she accepts. So is celebrating difference. Mavericks (named after a Texan engineer and rancher who didn't brand his cattle) need to do things differently. There are ways to encourage innovation: Google and 3M famously expect creative types to work on their own projects part of the time. Thorne offers a six-stage model of innovation, which notes, for instance, that non-judgmental evaluation of ideas doesn't mean uncritical. Mavericks themselves often say they need a constructive feedback regime, a structure for frequent pilots of ideas, the support of a team.

There's some good stuff here on how not to discourage innovation in your organisation and how to understand yourself and others better. Keep in mind that not everybody is interchangeable and that different types of intelligence need different methods of learning.

The corporate needs to change. CEOs need to listen; ask what others would do if they were CEO. If you take this tack, most of what you try will fail; are you ready for that?

This book suggests that funky, unkempt, unruly, positively subversive = good. Unfortunately, mavericks' responses vary hugely in want they want in bosses and working environments. You'll have to play it by ear. And judging from some of their comments, you may not actually like some. They really don't like punishment for failure. Still, give them enough rope and ... you might just get a swingbridge to prosperity.

See Natural Resources.

If you hear of a book that might be of particular relevance to our readers, or you want to occasionally review technical or management titles for Computerworld, drop an email to Mark Broatch.

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