Oh no! We have a rebel in our team. But is that really a disaster?

That one colleague who is out of step and contrarian is quickly referred to as a troublemaker. Change your perspective, says innovation expert Simone van Neerven. That rebel can be the key to successful innovation.

Coco Chanel was quite a rebel

Today we know the Chanel brand mainly as one of the most luxurious fashion and perfume brands in the world. The founder, Coco Chanel was an elegant lady. But what is perhaps less known, is that she also was quite rebellious. In those days, from the 1920s to the 1950s, it was quite normal to change for dinner. But Chanel just wore the clothes she had been wearing all day. She cut her long hair short, did not get married, and never had children. She also refused to participate in the latest fashion trends, as often, these clothes were impractical and you could hardly move freely in them.

Many innovations start with wonder

She wondered why women’s clothing was so uncomfortable while sportswear was very enjoyable to wear. She decided to design clothes that were just as nice and practical to wear as sportswear, while also being elegant. Her world-famous black dress was also a very daring invention: at the time, black clothing was mainly associated with servants and people who were mourning.

Fosbury backward high jump

The story of Coco Chanel certainly does not stand alone. If it weren’t for Dick Fosbury, the Fosbury Flop – the backward high jump – would never have been invented. In high school, he failed to master the then-common straddle technique. Instead of giving up, he started experimenting with different ways of jumping. As he continued to develop his style, opponents questioned whether it was legal. They thought he was crazy and told him it would never work. But this never discouraged him. In 1968, he won the gold medal at the Olympics in Mexico City and became a legend. At the next Olympics, 28 out of 40 jumpers adopted this technique; today, everyone uses the Fosbury Flop.

The experiment became the norm

The same has happened with the clap skate (‘klapschaats’). In the beginning, no one wanted to use it either. But soon it became the standard as one success after another was achieved with the typical ice skate. And there are countless examples where a rebellious view of everyday things has led to innovation.

Rebels are troublemakers, are they?

We often see that rebels are seen as troublemakers. But are they really such pain in the asses? Rebels are mainly characterized by three elements.

1. Rebels are curious and open to new things

They can be very surprised and excited about incomprehensible and illogical rules and procedures. They denounce this, precisely because they can see the world through different eyes and know that things can be done differently. Rebels are always looking for new things and constantly learning. They keep asking a lot of questions, even to the point that it can become annoying.

2. Rebels are creative and practical

In addition, rebels feel an enormous urge to make things better and to create something new. They always find solutions to problems they encounter, often by going off the beaten track. They use ideas from completely different contexts to solve their problems.

3. Rebels are brave and authentic

They are extremely driven to share their findings and ideas, even though they know that often they will receive lots of opposition. It takes a fair amount of courage to do that. Their natural urge to improve things is often so strong that saying or doing nothing is not an option for them. Rebels don’t shy away from heated dialogues. And as long as they don’t hear good arguments to the contrary, they stick to their idea.

Rebels are often misunderstood

Many organizations misunderstand the power of rebellious people – they see the problems, not the possibilities. True rebels are not crazy or out of control. Their actions are not meant to defeat the current regime, but to improve it. They feel discomfort with the status quo, usually earlier than others do. The urge to speak out about something they firmly believe in overcomes the natural urge to conform and belong. They do not break the rules because they want to, but because they feel they have to.

Ambassadors for innovation

Rebels are very good at spotting what goes wrong, can come up with creative solutions, and take ownership to make it happen. So do not immediately rush headlong into a defensive reflex toward that rebellious colleague. That rebel in your team may very well be the key to success for your innovation journey.

This article was originally published in Dutch on MT/Sprout, the most popular business and management platform in the Netherlands.

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