The best ideas come from misfits

Someone doesn’t fit in? That can be an asset.
Someone doesn’t fit in? That can be an asset.
Image: REUTERS/Charles Platiau
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I remember the first time I realized that not all companies embrace misfits. I was interviewing for one of my first jobs, and the interviewer asked me where I saw myself in the next five years. I gave an unexpected honest answer. The interviewer paused, clearly showing that not only did he expect a “right” answer to this question, but also that he did not appreciate how a different way of thinking could benefit him in his organization.

The truth was, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my career. What I knew from an early age was that I wanted to solve problems. I hadn’t figured out specifically what types of problems, and how I would do that. After flirting with careers in mechanical engineering, politics, public service, and more, I finally found a calling in design. That career, which I entered as a non-designer, taught me that innovation has no predefined shape or form. Innovation does not require fitting a certain job requirement or having a specific degree in innovation. And often, it’s a collection of different backgrounds that drives the most innovative solutions.

From this perspective, “misfits” are valuable to companies. They don’t quite fit into a specific team. They’re always challenging why the company does what it does. They’re rebellious. They’re independent. They can seem counterproductive to everything that a manager needs to achieve—to maintain order.

But those are the people that are going to change the game on how your company innovates.

How misfits can drive innovation

It’s no coincidence that often the best ideas come from the intersection of different industries, disciplines or backgrounds. Innovation thrives by looking at one problem from several different angles.

For example, in my current role as VP of Innovation Practices at Intuit, one of the problems we were trying to solve last year included envisioning the future of customer care leveraging sophisticated technologies. This was a tough ask, since our products TurboTax and QuickBooks serve customers with potentially complicated financial situations. How do we still apply a humanized approach to a more automated care experience, while still leveraging the network of financial professionals we employ?

Whereas most people would go about dictating to the team to conduct research and meet with the technologists, I had only one request of the project: part of the final deliverable needed to be a sketch. As a leader, I almost never advise other leaders to dictate the deliverable for a project, but this project had a specific objective. I needed one of my employees to come out of her shell of being “Corporate,” and tap into her creative side that she reserves for after work. The misfit side. The result was not only a sketch, but a beautifully illustrated children’s book that was a hit within our organization and strategically defined the next three years of our product roadmap in care. This was a far cry from the typical fifty-slide deck that took hours to read.

Managing Misfits

As an innovation leader, my team is comprised of those with backgrounds in neuroscience, literature, design, and even professional sports and law enforcement.

Bringing together what seems like a mash-up of individuals starts with aligning on a common mission and vision. For us, that means following the principles we established together rather than all thinking the same way.

Misfits don’t want a box of rules, but they do want the guardrails. Once I set those guardrails based on our principles, I let my team loose to solve problems. And they’ve never disappointed.

Lionel Mohri is VP of Innovation Practices at Intuit.