Kickstarting innovation? Six tips to empower rebels in your team

Rebels are seen as difficult and organisations often go around them. A crying shame, says innovation expert Simone van Neerven. These tips will help you to make full use of their potential.

KLM's deadlock

Turning aircraft around – all processes to get a plane ready for take-off again after landing – is an airline’s core operational business. The shorter the turnaround and thus the time an aircraft is on the ground, the more efficiently it can be deployed. At KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, the operational and commercial departments could not agree on how to shorten the turnaround time without significantly increasing costs. The topic was in a deadlock situation for years.

Taking ownership

In 2012, a team of rebels took ownership of the challenge. A mix of people, representing every discipline involved in the turnaround, all with hands-on experience in the field, gathered for a full week. During that week, they shared all information and data they had, including every pain point. Together they created a new design with a 30 percent shorter turnaround time. Almost no investment was needed to implement it. After a few months of extensive testing and fine-tuning of the solutions, the new design was formalized. The loss suffered on European flights vanished in thin air, and shortly after short flights started to become profitable again.

Empower your rebels

Often rebels are experienced as difficult and people tend to go around them. But by empowering rebels, they become your most valuable employees. They will be the drivers for innovation and continuous improvement of your organization.

Here are six tips on how to deal with a rebel in your team:

#1 Let them work on your biggest challenges

Rebels like to be challenged. They get uncomfortable with the status quo and have a natural urge to improve and create new things. Their curiosity enables them to get to the heart of the matter. Their creativity helps them to find surprising solutions to these long-lasting problems.

#2 Give them space

Make sure to give them room for maneuver. In the KLM example, the team had restricted itself with only one limitation: there was no money available for major investments. Almost everything else was negotiable. This opened up the space for changing and transferring tasks from one department to another, ultimately saving significant time in the turnaround process.

#3 Bring them together

For years, KLM employees had been sharing ideas about shortening and improving the turnaround process. But nothing had ever been done with it. By bringing all these solutions together and looking at them more holistically, their true value was revealed. Many small ideas can lead to a big result.

#4 Listen to them

Rebels can sometimes get frustrated and dig their heels in if their ideas aren’t listened to. Because of their ability to look at things differently, they come up with solutions that may seem strange or even idiotic at first. Often, they really have given thought to the topic. Suppress the urge to immediately write off their ideas. Instead engage in conversation to understand where the rebel is coming from. It will lead to surprising and new insights that would otherwise never have emerged.

#5 Be radically honest

During the week that KLM organized to shorten the turnaround time, ideas surfaced that participants had passionately talked about for years, but which were not acted upon. What turned out? At first glance, their solutions seemed good. But by looking at them from all angles, they were not that practical after all. By clearly explaining this, employees could finally put their idea to rest. This also created more openness for other, better ideas.

#6 Coach them

Rebels often enthusiastically plunge into new ideas and solutions. They don’t always feel whether the timing is right or not. Also, quite often, they will unintentionally bypass colleagues and managers, which can be a very delicate issue in organizations. By coaching them they will learn to better navigate an organization and become more effective. No longer will they be seen as a troublemaker, but rather as an innovator of the organization.

Rebels may not be like you, and that is a good thing.

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

don’t miss out!

subscribe and get my columns straight into your mailbox

Scroll to Top