Management: Talented weirdos a key to success

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The Independent Online
'TALENT never asks 'will they like it?' ' declared talkshow host Larry King. 'Talent pleases itself. That's the difference between talent and the ordinary.'

Ever read a more self-serving statement? That was my first thought. But then I realised King has a point, especially in today's market place, bulging with lookalike products.

A movie is a box-office smash. Next come the sequels. Then all the big studios try to copy the star flick's formula. Some successes ensue, but not many and not for long. So, too, in the world of consumer electronics, cars and financial services.

Iconoclastic talent, to use King's term, is invariably disruptive and disrespectful. Most would-be destroyers of the status quo fail. But the handful whose many notions punch our hot buttons are responsible for almost all important advances in commerce, science and the arts.

In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, consultant Jack Falvey claimed IBM had stumbled by ignoring its customers. Exactly wrong. IBM was primarily derailed by sales-minded leaders who paid slavish attention to yesterday's customers while the market took a 90-degree turn.

To give Falvey his due, most companies ought to pay more attention to their customers. Still, such sales and service obsessions can trap you in the long run.

There is middle ground. Wise hi-tech firms focus on 'lead users', pioneering customers whose kinky needs today may become tomorrow's norm. Savvy packaged-food makers figure out Mr and Ms Average's tastes of tomorrow by checking what trendy restaurants are hawking today.

Such approaches, which extend far beyond customer surveys and focus groups, have merit. But they don't go far enough.

Commentator Robert X Cringely reckoned the computer industry's progress rests on the backs of 25 or so true visionaries.

Similarly, Microsoft's Bill Gates claims that a handful of brilliant programmers are the cornerstone of his company's future.

While I believe such visionaries have inner ears tuned to the consumer, they are certainly not 'listening to' or being 'led by' their customers in the conventional sense of those terms.

Commentator George Gilder calls entrepreneurship the 'launching of surprises'. Product visionaries do just that. They zap us by tapping into our unanticipated desires for Post-its, running shoes with pumps, desktop publishing and so on.

Gary Withers, head of the British market services firm Imagination, is in the surprise business, as he sees it: always trying to top his last creative performance. He claims that aggressively recruiting high-performance weirdos, whether or not there is a specific job opening, is essential. Withers figures that if the person is as interesting as he thinks, he or she will eventually find something clever that will vault the growing firm to the next plateau.

What are the practical implications of all this? Should we stop listening to customers? Should we embrace the head cases, even when they disrupt day-to-day business and thumb their noses at the corporate culture? Should we pay millions for stellar talent and in the process hopelessly scramble current compensation schemes?

Yes and no. In a perfect world, we would listen obsessively to our customers - and also seek out the wackos. We would hire the disrupters but not let them disrupt 'too much'.

Trouble is, it's not a perfect world. It is impossible to be mainly button-down and mainly zany at once. IBM has had a pronounced bias toward the button-down, which led to enormous success and then, inevitably, failure. Johnson & Johnson and 3M have a bias towards the zany (at least by the modest standards of giant firms).

Consequently, they fail to fully exploit many market opportunities - but seem to have created the basis for perpetual self-renewal. Every so often, some nut hits a home run, even though his or her product may conflict with the firm's current bread- and-butter lines.

As the times become more unhinged, vigorous pursuit of quirky talent looks like sound strategy. No, don't turn a deaf ear to customers. But do understand that your future lies with the ability to cherish the royal pains in the neck who are in sync only with their own muse but who just may lead you to the promised land.

Remember the downside of ignoring this advice: our increasingly entrepreneurial society, from overnight delivery services to upstart software makers, is serving up an ever richer fare of wild ideas, one of which might just put you out of business.

Copyright 1993 TPG Communications