#350 from Innovative Leader Volume 7, Number 7          July 1998

Ah…Those “Wild Ducks”
by Ray Anthony

Mr. Anthony is the author of five business books and is President of Genesis Training Solutions in The Woodlands,TX.  Phone: (281) 364-7739, email: innovader@aol.com.

Not all creative superstars are like these special folks with monikers such as:  eccentric, maverick, space cadet, buccaneer, or wild duck.  Perceived as brilliant misfits or lone wolves, they don’t fly in formation or march to the same drummer as everyone else.  They see the world quite differently.  But these off-the-wall thinking aficionados can hatch up mind-boggling unforeseen innovations for their organizations--enormous contributions that make them tolerable, if not almost indispensable. 

Instead of being blindly loyal to their organization’s traditions, policies, or goals, wild ducks are devoted to their own ideas and never-ending quest for creative coups.  They play by their own rules and agendas and are self-motivated.  As such, they’re resistant to standard carrot-and-stick incentives that govern others.

But their quirky or abrasive personalities, radical concepts, and penchant for rocking the organization’s boat, can give their manager and co-workers cause for nightmares or drink.  Harvey T., a sales executive for a leading west coast software company, shook his head and grinned when asked how to spot these cerebral maestros of mischief, “On the downside, I’d say many appear independent, brash, ego-driven, temperamental, self-righteous, and undisciplined.  They’re prima donnas who have ‘brains and attitudes.’  They hate routine, paperwork, and politics.  Some are just different or nerdy--a peculiar sense of humor, wacky habits and behaviors, and non-conformist dress and grooming.  Others act and appear more conventional, but are recalcitrant and iconoclastic underneath.  I call them ‘corporate guerrillas in pin stripes.’  But, on the upstroke, with the right project and manager, they’re all incredibly conscientious, motivated, and wildly imaginative.  Their output can spin your head!”

Squawking and fluttering about, wild ducks can stretch your patience to the extent that you wonder if it’s worth keeping them around the corporate pond.  They often expect the impossible from you.  But while they’re usually dismissed as unmanageable “mad scientist” types, you have more options than quarantine or guillotine.  If you find ways to use, not abuse, them, you’ll turn them into your organization’s star assets.  It’s a high management calling to focus their creativity on your business goals and keep them somewhat disciplined and part of your organization’s cultural mainstream.  But you’re up to it!  Here are proven ways to get your wild ducks flying straighter during their flights of fancy.

Getting Value from the Off-the-Wall Types

Don’t act like a “boss.”  A heavy-handed approach where you order or threaten them produces devastating results.  It just makes them anxious and stiffens their resolve to go their own course.  They have problems with “put-on-airs” and control-freak managers.  Don’t expect these independent-minded, proud people to automatically agree with you just because you’re the honcho.  Direct them lightly and respectfully and be subtle in your discussions with them.

Be a coach.  Showing apathy or verbally shredding their cherished ideas causes them distress since their ideas are a soulful part of them.  They’re unusually sensitive to people’s reactions to their ideas.  They take it quite personally.  So, it’s critical to give proper feedback to their ideas--timely, specific, objective, and always constructive.  When appropriate, be generous in your detailed praise of their work and always start with a positive remark like, “You’ve put a lot of thought and imagination into that approach.  How did you come up with it?”

Permit anything-goes listening.  Create a climate of open-mindedness and acceptance for them--where even zoned out, wacky ideas are not snickered at or greeted with frigid silence.

Be patient and listen.  The egos of “superbrains” are like overblown, fragile balloons.  They often require kid-glove handling so as not to burst.  Don’t take their insecurity or sensitivity personally.  Just be patient and tactful.  Because they’re often moody and excitable, you may have to get them to vent their emotions first, before objectively discussing their work. “You seem concerned (upset, preoccupied) about something.  Want to talk about it?”  One sales V.P. looked at it this way, “One nice thing about these egoists--at least they don’t talk about other people.”

Accommodate them.  Your resident geniuses are usually high maintenance, but are worth a little “coddling.”  They hate routine and bland assignments, so stimulate them by giving them a variety of challenging assignments that stretch their creative specialties.  Give them plenty of freedom to explore.  Try to minimize reports and administrative duties which they despise.  Let them decorate their offices as they please.  Permit them some flexible working hours because they typically get their best ideas outside of 9 to 5.  Don’t pressure them to do activities for “look busy” sake alone.  Instead, make them accountable for results, not tasks.  They often need to stare out the window, get away alone, or just veg out to think.  Let them occasionally work at home.  If you force them to rigidly conform, you’ll squash their imagination and drive.

“Run interference” for them.  Wild ducks typically feel under siege by the corporate dullards of the world who usually misunderstand and malign them.  Their eccentricity and lack of political savvy makes them easy targets.  With the higher-ups in your organization, protect them and justify their unorthodox methods.  “Well, you know Maurice.  He’s a unique personality who gets stunning results in surprising ways.  As a super innovator, he’s solved our two most vexing customer problems….”  Help them in other ways to safely traverse the corporate minefields.

Give credit.  Don’t take it.  A surefire way to get your wild ducks dive bombing at you is to take (even a little) credit for their ideas.  They’re super-protective of their ideas.  Instead, shower them with recognition and rewards and put them squarely in the spotlight of the pond.

Give them resources.  Give your wild ducks enough resources to be successful.  However, if you need to jolt their creativity further, give them a slight scarcity of resources.  Their ingenuity will force them to come up with exciting variations and sparkling new insights to their project.

Create goals and deadlines.  Ultra-creatives love being immersed in the inspiration phase of innovation.  They’ll want forever to dwell on perfecting their ideas, rather than doing the less-glamorous arduous work of implementing them.  You need to get them moving by involving them in planning--setting their own goals, deadlines and milestones.  Make sure objectives and schedules are challenging, but realistic.  Systematically monitor and coach them on their progress.  Because they like running their own show their way, avoid giving them too many explicit directions.

Draw the line in the sand.  When wild ducks become grossly insensitive, unreasonable or uncooperative, you need to calmly, but firmly, explain that their actions are not only disrupting the organization and are unfair to others, but are hurting the success of their prized creative projects as well.  Without any hint of threats or coercion, objectively inform them of the negative consequences of their actions.  Telling them, “This is the way it will be, and I’m not backing down,” is sometimes necessary to get them back in line.

So, if you’re the frustrated manager of some wild ducks, try managing them for peak performance.  It’s likely you’ll get very important contributions.

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