Why Every Organization Needs Some Misfits


Over the past two months or so, I’ve been playing around a lot on Google Plus – more on that, and on our amazing mentor Elaine Lindsay, in an upcoming post.

For now, let’s leave it at this: to use Google’s “Hangout” feature is to fall instantly and forever in love. Telephone? What’s that? Skype? Yeah, whatever.

So I’m giving you a provisional “do it!” on G+. But only provisional at this stage, and here’s one big reason: I really think Google needs to hire some English majors. Or history, or anthropology, or even dance – just, something other than engineers. They also need to hire some college – and high school – dropouts.

You’ve read the articles, you know: every open position at Google has 3,000 applicants, so if you aren’t valedictorian from a top-ranked school, you don’t even get an interview.

Meanwhile, they make their stuff (calendar, Gmail, and G+ all, in my experience) sooooo much harder to navigate than a busy (read: ADD) guy like me has time for.

And I honestly don’t think they have any idea.

Why is that? Why does one of our most iconic companies suffer a blind spot such as, “Damn, this Google stuff could be a lot easier to use?” I think for all their brainpower, they select brains that are too-similarly-wired.

Which is where I was going with this post all along. This isn’t a post about Google at all: this is all about your company, and a spin on diversity that never makes it into the discussion.

We talk about diversity as making the working world more fair by opening opportunities for women and minorities, be they racial (whatever a race is), ethnic, sexual orientation – you know this line of reasoning, and it’s a vitally important one. We live in a vastly better world because of this type of focus on diversity, and it’s getting better every day.

The more savvy among us go one further than fairness to point out that such diversity isn’t just fair, it also lends employers a competitive advantage, because of the diversity of perspective that a different life experience brings with it.

Absolutely true.

Imagine living in a society where women don’t work – you’ve just sidelined 51% of your talent. And where everyone must follow the same religion, and be ethnically identical. And where many of the highest skilled homosexuals feel so unwelcome (or endangered!) that they leave the country.

Good luck competing!

When everyone’s cut from the same cloth, the garments you’re able to make will be monochrome, and that’s that.

For all their brainpower, they select brains that are too-similarly-wired.

Diversity of background leads to diversity of thought, and diversity of thought is an essential antidote to groupthink – which is the bane of any leader, anywhere, at any time. Groupthink – in which the emperor only hears that his new clothes are gorgeous, and no one tells him he’s actually naked – results from leaders who isolate themselves with yes-men. These sycophants only say yes because they are afraid of what dissention will mean for their careers.

Groupthink comes from having an insecure, immature, and autocratic leader: the type of tyrant we all too often celebrated in the Twentieth Century.

Groupthink can also come about less intentionally, though. When a leader does not have sufficient perspectives around her, she will hear that her new clothes are beautiful not because she is an autocrat, but because the people advising her really, truly see the world as she does.

This is why misfits are so utterly important to add to the cocktail of the workplace.

Misfits don’t typically rank tops in their classes, because they’re bored with school – but the best ones are fascinated by other stuff; stuff taught (often to oneself) outside the four walls of a classroom. Misfits sometimes major in engineering (good news, Google!), but they almost never major in business; more likely psychology, or fine arts, or philosophy, or some other “impractical” field.

Diversity isn’t just fair, it also lends employers a competitive advantage

Misfits take a semester off to start a t-shirt business, and (though the business fails), they never quite make it back to campus – until they’re fifty, and they endow a chair.

Misfits don’t work well in an office, or 9-5, or on weekdays – they work all the time as ideas come to them: some of their best work is done before their run on Sunday mornings. They don’t wait their turn to lead, or show properly deferential behavior to their corporate “superiors” – they just don’t get all that stuff.

And when leaders sprinkle a good number of misfits in among their corporate rank-and-file, wondrous thing can happen to a company’s ability to innovate and thrive!

A few misfits might even be able to help Google make their products more ADD-friendly. I for one would be really grateful for that.


Continue reading our New Leadership series with Not A Born Leader? So What!


Art by: x-xLithiumx-x

Ted Coiné is a Forbes Top 10 Social Media Power Influencer and an Inc. Top 100 Leadership and Management Expert. This stance at the crossroads of social and leadership put him in a unique perspective to identify the demise of Industrial Age management and the birth of the Social Age. The result, after five years of trend watching, interviewing and intensive research, is his latest book, A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive, which he co-authored with Mark Babbitt. An inspirational speaker and popular blogger, Ted is a pioneer of the Human Side of Business (#humanbiz) movement. He is also a serial business founder and three-time CEO. When not speaking at conferences and corporate functions, Ted advises CEOs on how to become Truly Social Leaders, or “Blue Unicorns” as they put it in A World Gone Social, in order to bring their companies into the Social Age. Ted’s advice: “Change is only scary if it’s happening to you. Instead, bring the change your competitors dread. That is something only a Social Age business leader can accomplish.”

  • Gotta give a big Amen! to this one Ted. I’ll be sharing this on Linkedin and Twitter later this morning. It was great to Hangout with you and I look forward to the upcoming Hangout on Air. I love the feature, but it does need to become more user friendly!!

  • This is so true! Thank you for such great articulation on a matter that I think we all need to keep in mind. A misfit can bring great wealth to a project and cover your blind side.

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  • This is truly excellent…What a great concept to think of our workplaces and cultures as ‘cocktails’ with lots of interesting stuff (instead of a standard 6 ounce glass of dry Chardonnay). I think this brings up so many questions for leaders about how we need to think differently about those who are…different. Ultimately, we need to lead differently. We already know that the odd-balls and misfits (which should actually be called the catalysts and game changers and really interesting people) are the one’s that can transform our organizations — and change our world. Thank you for sharing such an awesome post, Ted!

  • Thanks Ted. Yes, misfits are deemed to be a problem because they don’t conform. They way around this is to remember that the non-conformity isn’t the person but the ideas they hold. We might stop worrying about the person and instead ask, ‘What’s working with this non-conformist idea?’, or ‘Suppose we implemented this idea, what would work / what might we learn?’

    The idea can then add value to what we are doing. The diversity is
    about the idea not the personality of the presenter – who may not have the best
    skills in presenting ideas or collaborating.

    • Bonnie, I love your response! One remark among many really strikes home with me: “If these companies changed their views, who knows what they’d be capable developing in the future!” Even with those few companies that most of us view as highly successful, I say to myself (or anyone who’ll listen), “As remarkable as that company is today, what if they upped their service, or tried open books management, or encouraged all of their employees to complete certification to become a social media brand ambassador, or…?” (fill in that blank). The fact is, there isn’t a company or a leader on this earth that couldn’t do what it/she does better.

      Your experience with Comcast brings another point to mind, too. Companies need misfits. Misfits do not need those companies quite as desperately, although of course we all need employment. You worked at Comcast for six years – that’s pretty impressive by my own job-tenure yardstick. Their loss that you left, I’m sure.

      Thanks for weighing in, Bonnie! And good for you with your sometime-blue hair :)

  • bonniezilla

    Oh yeah?

    It’s rough when you end up being the misfit, though! At least, when I worked for Comcast. I stumbled upon your article after noticing my old boss, Frank Eliason, liked it. I thought it was funny because he hired me, the pink-haired a.d.d wonder girl with a serious authority problem. I flourished in my role at @comcastbonnie (social media customer service, literally one of the first to embark in that field), winning a Shorty Award for Customer Service and interviewed by The New York Times. I irritated a lot of very high up individuals, due to not only our close proximity at Comcast’s headquarters, but also being retweeted and quoted across the internet using non-approved language.

    I understood people. I was good at it. I was good at picking up things on the fly. I knew nothing about cable when I was hired at the company. By the time I left, I ended up handling the technical issues no other employee seemed to be able to fix. Unfortunately, despite many MANY glowing reviews from customers and other companies, things did not work out.

    It might have been due to the size and complexity of the company. It might have been the change in leadership of the team. The newly developed neurological disorder from a car accident didn’t help matters either. It’s amazing my A.D.D. (super compulsive type) self lasted for six years! I just thought it would be nice to let you know that the misfits get hired, but don’t always jive with the work environment. Which is stupid. If these companies changed their views, who knows what they’d be capable developing in the future!

    I’m pretty sure my hair color matched the eye shadow in the picture at some point, FYI.

  • Thank you! It was about time someone said that publicly. Well, someone who is acknowledged as author, speaker and consultant.

    Before becoming a master of disguise myself, I had different encounters with authority because I didn’t fit the norm. They were ok, I was ok and everything was fine. We agreed to disagree. Then we did what it was best for the company and that kept me in one of the most traditional companies in my country for almost 12 years.

    I think that as a misfit, your role is to keep everyone on their toes, including yourself. That’s the best way to challenge the status quo and make the comfort zone a place for vacation and not for residence. When you ask questions, share a different point of view, follow your passion, speak your truth, and don’t settle, you inspire others to do the same.

    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts in a way that invites to creativity, diversity, respect and acceptance of the many talents that our differences bring to the workplace.

  • I am so aligned with this thinking. It’s not just in the hiring it’s also in the “grooming” of our leaders. We can suck the differences right out of people in the spirit of development. Here’s some of my thinking on the topic. http://letsgrowleaders.com/2013/02/18/mutant-powers/

  • Jennifer Falasca

    I don’t even think it is the matter of being “the norm” or otherwise. It’s being brave enough to swim against the tide. I often flashback to Mr. Mom (circa 1980-something, right?) when the mom returns to marketing and asks them why they have dancing cats or whatever. People just want to save a buck. And boom! She’s created a successful marketing campaign. Surrounding yourself with folks that do not speak their mind is the easiest way to fail. You need to have the debate about what SHOULD be built, not just what can be built. I’m with you. My ADD hates Google+

  • apikoros18

    Great Article! As a misfit, I feel validated.

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  • Folks, I’ve got to amend my own post with an example or two. My 83-year-old Mom (who used to edit business books, among many other things, and who is the second-most-intelligent person I have ever met after her brother, my Uncle Roger) just got an iPad and started consuming S&S. She pointed out something in this post that I should’ve seen right away: “Ted, you need an example of a company that does employ misfits, to counter your diatribe against Google.” D’oh! I wish she’d read this before I posted. But as the saying goes, “Oh well!”

    Here you are: Ideo’s entire business exists only because so many companies do not employ misfits, or (much more often) squelch the talents of those they do. So some of the most-revered companies on earth hire Ideo to innovate for them. Ideo employs nothing but misfits, and puts the least likely folks together to work on projects as a team. http://www.ideo.com

    Continuum has been called the Ideo of the Northeast, though they actually have 5 locations globally. Same business model. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I was bringing MIT’s OLPC to the kids of Southwest Florida, those were co-created with Continuum. Pretty cool, the ties we have that we discover quite by accident. http://continuuminnovation.com

    And my favorite go-to? Valve, the video game company that Mark Babbitt and I are featuring in next August’s “A World Gone Social.” Valve seeks people shaped like a T, as they put it, which means one skill very deep, yes, but other interests that are broad, to bring a range of experience into the company. You can read about them here: http://switchandshift.com/good-karma-is-good-business

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