In the acknowledgements section of my new book Heretics to Heroes, I wrote:
“I wrote this book for those of you who spend your days toiling in organizations, waiting for someone in leadership to understand you and your heretical ideas. My request to you is simply this: get off your butts and start leading!”
In that spirit, I’ve written this week about nine fundamental concepts that underpin successful heresy in the business world. So sleeping rebels with big ideas, waiting to shake up the status quo, wake up––this post is for you. Effective corporate heretics understand and practice the following:
- Being a heretic is a high risk/high reward venture.
First and foremost, understand that “hereticking” (Yes, I’m aware it’s not an actual word. Stay with me.)––is a high risk/high reward proposition. In my case, being a heretic allowed me to leap frog many of my colleagues who chose to play it safe and climb the proverbial corporate ladder. A heretic who does not understand and apply what I outline in this post is likely to find hereticking unrewarding and possibly even career suicide.
- Provide a solution to unsolvable problems
Heretics know, see, or have something worth hereticking about. As the heretic, you can see how your paradigm is capable of solving today’s unsolvable problems, but it’s unlikely that others will. To be heretical, your new idea or paradigm must be something that flies in the face of convention, violates current accepted principles, practices, and rules that the community in which you operate has deemed not only impossible, but ludicrous to even propose. The best heretical ideas are those that cause the practitioners of the current paradigm to scream, “Burn him! He’s a witch!”––something I’ve experienced firsthand.
- Understand paradigms.
A heretic must understand paradigms––how they form, how they shift, the role the heretic plays in the process and the key roles others play. Without this knowledge, I would have been as lost as an explorer without a map. A great resource for better comprehending paradigms is Future Edge by Joel Arthur Barker.
- Be articulate.
Heretics can present their new idea in plain language––what’s different about it, how it solves unsolvable problems. In short, be able to explain why your paradigm should replace the current one. Write a thesis paper, an article, or a proposal that describes your idea. Develop your skills and become a powerful advocate of your idea. Hire a professional editor and speaking coach to help you hone your pitch. If you don’t know any, ping me––I know a few good ones.
- Be ready for a long battle.
My definition of commitment is “an intentional choice to eliminate any choice other than moving forward.” Heretics are committed to their new idea. Some have gone to their grave––literally––fighting for their new paradigm. Some never see it realized. It took the Catholic church over three centuries to accept Galileo’s model of our solar system. In my case, it’s taken decades for some of the most heretical ideas I’ve put forth to be accepted. For example, in the chemical industry during the late 1980s, I was asserting that it was no longer acceptable for us to harm people or the planet in pursuit of business results. A quarter of a century later, one would be crazy to suggest anything but.
- Understand and manage resistance.
Heretics expect resistance. It’s fundamental to the heretical game. Your new idea is going to upset the apple cart. Expect your boss, her manager, and even his manager to resist your idea. It will send those most proficient in the current paradigm “back to zero,” as Barker puts it. In other words, they’ll be novices like everyone else if your paradigm becomes accepted. You’re a threat to what is currently considered common practice and knowledge––and that scares people. Expect even to be ostracized and ridiculed by people who you thought were your teammates.
By putting forth a new idea, you’ve declared your secession from a group and are now an outsider. Your challenge is to get a critical mass of your ex-groupies to step outside and join you. A great source of wisdom in this arena is John P. Kotter’s book, Leading Change.
- Find a sponsor.
Those of you who’ve read my book know that in my career, I had a number of sponsors who advocated for me, put me in positions to develop me, and when necessary, protected me from my harshest critics. Find someone in an influential position and enroll him in sponsoring your movement. Look for open-minded candidates to sponsor you, and have the courage to approach them with your new idea. At some time in her journey, every heretic will face a powerful foe. Having a powerful sponsor in your corner is invaluable in those moments.
- Find some sooners.
Be on the lookout for like-minded people who appreciate your idea and who are willing to help you experiment with and develop it. These will likely be people on the edges of the current paradigm who have very little invested in it and subsequently little to lose by supporting you. Sooners can be an invaluable resource to a heretic as they shoulder the burden of the more tedious tasks while you’re busy advocating for your idea and dealing with resistors.
- Have faith in yourself.
The best advice I can offer you about believing in yourself is to quote Thomas Khun’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, written over half a century ago:
“The man who embraces a new paradigm at an early stage must often do so in defiance of the evidence provided by the problem solving. He must, that is, have faith that the new paradigm will succeed with the many large problems that confront it knowing only that the old paradigm has fail with a few. A decision of that kind can only be made on faith.”
A corporate heretic has faith in her judgment and the courage to act on that faith in the face of strong resistance. But then, it’s been my experience that the very best heretics enjoy doing just that.
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