I’ve long been enamored by individuals who have the courage and confidence to think and act differently in pursuit of solving problems in our workplaces. It takes courage, self-confidence and a high-degree of risk tolerance to challenge conventional wisdom in environments fueled by the relentless pursuit of perfecting the status quo.

While we celebrate and write biographies for the CEOs who change the world, in my experience, the mavericks, heretics, and rebels who drive significant change operate somewhere in the middle of our firms. Here are three ways these individuals think and act differently as they strive to improve our organizations.

Three Behaviors of Those Who Think Differently and Succeed

1. They See Danger and Complacency in Success (and do something about it)

One of my favorite examples of thinking differently is Amy, a product manager who looked at the firm’s recent financial successes and overstuffed product roadmap and decided the business was in big trouble.

Her framing of the situation suggested the firm was about to fall victim to the Innovator’s Dilemma (Christensen). From her vantage point, the firm’s investment was focused on tweaking current offerings, with no thought to innovation or diversification. While the firm’s customers were experiencing significant market pressure and were experimenting with new technologies, her firm was riding on its market-leading history.

There was no future horizon exploration, and the assumptions underlying the business seemed to suggest the status quo in their industry would hold.

Instead of fighting the losing battle of arguing with management that the sky was falling, she shifted her product team’s view to markets and technologies far removed from the current business.

While the process of exploration, discovery, and innovation she led is book-worthy, the ultimate outcome was identifying new markets, partners, technologies, and opportunities for her firm. Today, this business is very different and significantly more diverse from the one that just a few years was so certain it would remain successful running in place.

2. They Spot and Seize Gray-Zone Opportunities

In my article, Leading and Succeeding in the Gray-Zone, I suggest: Every organization has gray-zones—these are the spaces that exist somewhere between functional, divisional, or positional boundaries. It’s no one’s land, yet the issues spanning the gray-zone are visible and often vexing to all parties.

Those who think and act differently are expert at spotting problems in these gaps and bringing the right resources to improving the situation, helping the firm and the people involved in the process. They work hard to earn credibility by engaging, involving, and empowering others in pursuit of making meaningful improvements.

One gray-zone leader, Brian, was a master at finding the gray-zone issues important to executives and executing upon them. Specifically, he tuned into the strategic imperatives and critical priorities emanating from the top and looked for the gaps and barriers to succeeding with those issues. Once the problem was apparent, with the support of his boss and other executives, he would assemble and lead teams in pursuit of solutions.

A core part of his approach—one that I believe propelled him to great success—involved shining the spotlight directly on the people on his project teams. Ultimately, Brian’s ability to connect himself with high-visibility projects coupled with his relentless focus on helping others gain credit for the successes, translated into tremendous credibility and a more significant leadership role

3. They Play Politics and Cultivate Clean Power

Brian in the example above is an astute observer and player in his firm’s political environment. Effectively, Brian is a master politician. He tunes in to the biggest challenges in the firm on the minds of top management, and he builds coalitions to execute on these issues, helping everyone along the way.

For many of us, the descriptor master politician conjures negative images, often based on poor experiences with political operators. However, remember, everywhere humans gather to do something, a political environment emerges. Those who cultivate power decide what gets done and who does what, while others serve as role players at the whim of the few with power. Tuning in to the rules of the political environment is essential for individual and group success.

Brian leverages his firm’s political environment for everyone’s gain. He reads the priorities and works to be visible as a successful coalition builder and problem-solver. And then he helps those who did the work gain visibility and success.

While Brian is also the beneficiary of added opportunities plus the power to decide what gets done and who does it, his approach to building and applying what I term “clean power” creates a spiral of success for everyone involved.

Political agility is often the difference-maker in the success of someone who thinks and acts differently. The ability to read the political environment, tune-in to the significant issues, and bring the right resources to bear to fix them, are essential skills for success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s a lot of conventional wisdom holding us hostage to old thinking in our firms. In my experience, it pays to listen hard and to strive to understand what the mavericks, heretics, and revolutionaries have to say. You might find yourself thinking and acting differently in the process.

Art's Signature