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How to succeed in foresight with your otherness

Being a black sheep is goodDoes a persona of “different” help you drive more foresight in an organization? It can. Chances are, if you’ve been pressing your colleagues to open their minds to new ideas, if you’ve been rethinking things, reframing how you talk about them, reconsidering the conventional wisdom, you’ve already gotten personally branded for your “otherness”. If that’s so, go with it. Make the most of it. Be different.

Over my years working as a consulting futurist, I’ve met some amazing people who are on the front lines of foresight, working inside big organizations to get futures thinking through to more people. I remember some of them especially for their “otherness” which they wore with pride, or which at least came to define them for their colleagues.
One I remember well, Charlie Prather, worked at DuPont in the R&D Center. Over time, he found himself increasingly feeling and being seen as different from his R&D colleagues and the company culture. He came, just like many of his colleagues, out of chemical engineering or another technical specialty. But he found his talents really flowered when he worked internally as a consultant on creativity. By the time I knew him, he’d built an “idea room” at R&D headquarters, near the cafeteria. It was a small room, chock full of ideas on big post-its. He even re-did his business card, making it distinct from the normal ones in the company. It had bursts of color, the word “creativity” and what I saw as an overall creative joy. This was in the 1980s, and that was a distinctly “other” message. He could drive new kinds of creativity in his organization by being different. These days, Charlie leads an innovation consultancy, Bottom Line Innovation.
Eva Niewiadomski is a remarkable woman I met at the Catalyst Ranch, a creative meeting space in Chicago. Eva had had a similar experience to Charlie’s when she was at Quaker Oats. Over time, her office became a distinct space, full of whimsy and mind-stirring objects, colors, and images. She brought those touches to meetings she planned. Everyone kept asking her to help them plan more creative, inspiring meetings and workshops. Her otherness helped her be more valuable to her company. Unfortunately for them, before too long, she spun herself off, and now runs the Catalyst Ranch, where organizations can come and break down some mental habits of their own.
I also remember distinctly meeting a guy pulled back from retirement to join a small innovation team at an industrial company. My client there explained each of the roles on the small team. One was a “bean counter” who knew how to make things happen, and how to work the bureaucracy. Another chosen for the team was a “new grad” a newly-hired employee, they wanted because he was not yet caught up in the company’s way of thinking about things.
What I remember best, however, was the guy they brought back from retirement for the team. As they cast around to decide who might join this innovation team, people kept remembering this old colleague who, they said, “was always different, never really fit in, but we loved him anyway.” He rounded out the team—they needed different—they needed otherness.
Each of these people was an insider and an outsider in their companies. They discovered in themselves, and cultivated, aspects of who they were that were distinct from the corporate culture, and made being different a success in their companies. Their “otherness” was an asset.
As an outsider (I am a consulting futurist), I have the luxury of being separate from the corporate culture, and no one expects otherwise. In my work, I try very hard to understand (but not adopt) the culture and worldview inside the organizations I serve.
People who do what I do from the inside have to balance their otherness with fitting in, at least to a point. But I urge those of you in that position to let yourself be the one with a different take on the situation. Nurture in yourself the ability to take a fresh and distinct look at things. If you need reassurance, find a few allies in the organization, or find some on the outside, who are in a similar situation. Share your “otherness” stories with them.
This quote my friend and fellow futurist Cindy Frewen Wuellner shared with me celebrate the spirit of otherness:
“But then they danced down the street like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”  –Jack Kerouac, On the Road, 1957
I recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s November 10, 2008 New Yorker piece “The Uses of Adversity” which explores some similar thoughts on outsiderness. In that piece, Gladwell shares a quote from Anthropologist Brian Foster about commerce in Thailand:
“A trader who was subject to the traditional social obligations and constraints would find it very difficult to run a viable business. If, for example, he were fully part of the village society and subject to the constraints of the society, he would be expected to be generous in the traditional way to those in need. It would be difficult for him to refuse credit, and it would not be possible to collect debts … The inherent conflict of interest in a face-to-face market transaction would make proper etiquette impossible or would at least strain it severely, which is an important factor in Thai social relations.”

Image: pasotraspaso, via Flickr, cc: attribution license. 

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