Need to spark innovation? Hire a weirdo

By Ryan Galloway
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The Brief
It’s the Holiday season, and here at RelSci, that’s got us thinking about new and better ways of doing business in the New Year. Okay, weirdos may seem like a strange place to start, but once you see the facts below, you’ll see why they (and diversity in general) are the place to start. Ready to let your stripes show?
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“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent instantly recognizes genius.” 
― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Valley of Fear

When the case at the center of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet proved too baffling for the team at Scotland Yard, the organization did what it would come to do dozens of times down the road: hire a weirdo. Sherlock Holmes, the awkward, arrogant, and often off-putting detective was difficult to work with, but his innovative methods and gift for lateral thinking led the Yard to call on its resident oddball to solve its most challenging problems.

It’s time for contemporary businesses to do the same.

In a recent Businessweek article, Martin Davidson makes a persuasive case for following the Yard’s example. Davidson, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and author of The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed, argues that businesses can drive innovation, address emerging challenges and gain a competitive edge by hiring those he refers to as “constructively weird.”  

Not all Weirdoes are Created Equal
Unconventional thinkers like Holmes, Michelangelo and even Steve Jobs may be challenging to work with, but that’s a small price to pay for their unique insight and innovative approaches to problem solving. Getting the most out of unconventional thinkers, however, takes more than just extending an offer letter to the next one you interview. 

Davidson cautions against hiring people who cultivate weirdness for its own sake. These folks tend to be attention seekers, not innovators. The truly uncommon, he says, “oppose the norm, though not just for the sake of standing out. Rather, they are trying to see something or to achieve a larger goal, and they know that following a normal path won’t get them there.” 

“The truly uncommon try to achieve a larger goal, and they know that following a normal path won’t get them there.” 

Don’t Wait for Weirdoes to Find You
To find a genuine innovator, look for dissenting voices in your field. Is there a blogger or Twitter user who consistently shares smart but contrarian perspectives on the issues that matter to businesses like yours? If so, engage him. These folks love to talk about ideas and will welcome a lively debate. 

They also crave a challenge. In 2004, Google mounted an anonymous and cryptic billboard in Silicon Valley, challenging passersby to solve a problem using number theory. The enterprising souls who solved the problem were directed to a website that led to yet another challenge. Solving that one took them to a page that said, in so many words, that Google would be calling them soon. If you don’t have the budget for a billboard, a test like Quixey’s one-minute challenge will do in a pinch. 

The collective intelligence of a community comes from idea flow; we learn from the ideas that surround us, and others learn from us.”

Stop Worrying About Corporate Culture
If keeping your company’s culture intact prevents you from hiring a smart and innovative professional who happens to be a tad eccentric, then you’re not minding your culture—you’re enforcing the status quo. You’re also doing your employees a disservice.

That’s because a “constructively weird” hire can change the way your team thinks. As data scientist Alex Pentland points out, “The collective intelligence of a community comes from idea flow; we learn from the ideas that surround us, and others learn from us.” Weird employees might be a bit awkward at the company picnic, but these unconventional thinkers can introduce your team to new ideas that fundamentally change the way they think about your industry and its emerging problems.

The Takeaway
Sure, making room for weirdoes will force you to rethink your approach to hiring and company culture, but it’s a small price to pay for improving your organization’s ability to innovate and changing the way your team approaches problems. 


Ryan Galloway oversees content for The Hired Guns, a digital marketing and talent consulting firm in New York City. He has written for Business Insider and Forbes.com and is a frequent contributor to this blog. 

RelSci helps create competitive advantage for organizations through a crucial yet vastly underutilized asset: relationship capital with influential decision makers. 
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