Seek out the gadflies, the iconoclasts, the mavericks

Even when they make you uncomfortable. No, because they make you feel uncomfortable.

Gadflies, iconoclasts and mavericks are the people who have the unconventional ideas that can lead to disruptive innovation, or shake up a complacent company. And these are the folks who can identify the “wild cards” that could dramatically alter our future scenarios.

One of the roles of a futurist is to help organizations explore ideas that cause discomfort. As long-time futurist Joe Coates says, futurists are different from regular consultants because, among other things, futurists pay attention to wild cards, discontinuities — and “speak the unspeakable.”

The book “Thinking About the Future” (edited by Andy Hines and Peter Bishop, Social Technologies, 2006) puts it this way:

[S]eek out ideas that make the organization uneasy. These include ideas that would counteract the current strategy, put the organization out of business, make a new product obsolete, be perceived as too “weird,” or be contrary to the organization’s culture or notions about how the world works.

Seeking out contrarian ideas and people may seem counterintuitive, and does not always leave a great taste in one’s mouth, yet is necessary for organizational health. Other benefits include avoiding groupthink, promoting a diversity of beliefs and ideas, uncovering new opportunities, and preventing the organization from becoming intellectually homogenous.

The book uses the example of John Boyd, a gifted fighter pilot who was also “loud, brash, brilliant, and unconcerned about making people feel comfortable.” He was asked to work on a next-generation Air Force fighter plane, at a time when the standard Air Force mindset was to develop big, complex, expensive, multipurpose planes. Boyd took the opposite approach and advocated a cheap, simple, lightweight, high-performance fighter — which ultimately led to the highly successful F-16.

Other examples that I’ve come cross:

Amory Lovins, chairman and chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute. He’s been a vigorous advocate of aggressive energy conservation efforts (and an opponent of nuclear energy) for more than three decades — despite ridicule from the energy industries. His institute developed an ultra-efficient hydrogen car (Hypercar), just to show Detroit it could be done. His ideas can be “out there.” For example, one of his proposals for cooling energy-guzzling computer centers is to use “a mountain of slush sprayed out of snow-making machines,” also known as a data center slushie.

Paul Kasriel, chief of economic research at Northern Trust in Chicago. He’s been predicting economic problems from excessive household debt for the past seven or eight years, in his edgy newsletter called “The Econtrarian.” He challenged conventional wisdom at a time when others were celebrating record home sales and soaring stock prices, says columnist Herb Greenberg. In recent weeks, Kasriel has been proven right, and he’s concerned the economy may be headed towards a painful recession.

Douglas Englebart, now at the Bootstrap Institute, conceived of personal computing, hypertext, online networks and point-and-click interfaces — and invented the mouse — in the mid-1960s, at a time when computing was done by specialists on huge mainframes. He was literally laughed at when he presented his ideas at an industry conference. The problem was that computer scientists at the time couldn’t imagine anything different.

Aubrey de Grey, an iconoclastic biotech researcher, maintain that within a few decades biotechnology will be able to reverse or neutralize the process of aging. His goal is to extend the human lifespan by hundreds of years. His new book: “Ending Aging.”

Feel free to add your own mavericks in the Comments section!

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