When Wrong is Right and Right is Wrong

I recently heard a story about a school teacher giving a lesson on Trigonometry.  The teacher asked the class how they would use a theodolite to find out the height of a church steeple.  One of the less academic boys put up his hand.  Surprised, the teacher asked him for his answer.  “I would find the vicar and offer to give him the theodolite if he told me the height of the steeple” he replied.  Somewhat exasperated, the teacher asked him if he might use the theodolite in any other way to determine the height of the steeple.  This time he suggested climbing the steeple and dropping the theodolite while at the same time measuring how long it took to fall to the ground.  From this he suggested they would be able to calculate the height.

Unfortunately, people like that particular boy are often deemed to be giving the ‘wrong’ answers, when in actual fact they were not wrong at all, they simply did not conform to the expectations of the person asking the question.

When business leaders are asked what the greatest challenges they face are, innovation and creativity inevitably feature high on their list.  Organisations therefore have a need for the people who give the ‘wrong’ answers, as they are the creatives, the innovators and the people who challenge the status quo.  It’s ironic therefore that very few such people seem to exist in most organisations.

Probably the greatest single reason for this irony is recruitment processes that place a large emphasis on ‘relevant experience’.  How often have you see job adverts that begin by describing the fantastic forward-looking person they wish to recruit, only to then go on to stipulate the minimum number of years experience they must have had in that particular industry.  In other words, we want a wild bucking bronco – but only one that has already been broken in. 

Not all organisations are like this though – some actively encourage mavericks.  For example, Richard Branson partnered with Norwich Union in 1995 to create Virgin Direct they recruited their initial team from existing Norwich Union staff members.  Interestingly, many of the staff who left Norwich Union to join the new company were ones that Norwich Union was happy to let go as they felt they were the ‘wrong’ sort of people.  Virgin, on the other hand, was specifically looking for mavericks – what was ‘wrong’ for Norwich Union was ‘right’ for Virgin Direct.

Google is another organisation whose legendary interview techniques, described in the book “Are you smart enough to work at Google?”, are designed to identify people with imagination and creativity.  They then capitalise on these traits by allowing employees to do whatever they like for 20% of their time, provided it is for the good of the company.  This is how the company has managed to create such a diverse set of product offerings.

In recognition of the fact that innovation often comes from people who are different, the Danish not-for-profit organisation ‘The Specialist People Foundation’ promotes the employment of people with autism and similar challenges, such as ADHD, ADD, OCD and Tourette’s Syndrome.  They are currently working with the German software company SAP to recruit hundreds of people with autism.  The goal is that by 2020 SAP will employ more than 600 people with the neuraldevelopmental disorder, roughly 1 percent of the company’s global workforce.

So next time you face a challenge, don’t simply look for answers, but take time to challenge the question.  Einstein famously once said: “The challenges of today will not be solved by the same level of consciousness that created them.”  Sometimes it is the ‘wrong’ answers that are of the greatest value.

About the Author
Alistair Schofield is Managing Director of Extensor Limited.