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Imagine that you are scanning through resumes of your latest job applicants, and you come across an individual whose job history includes: university professor, healthcare executive, consultant, professional photographer, karate instructor, advertising executive, executive coach, and author? Would you discard it out-of-hand concluding that the applicant was a wacko malcontent or would you say, “Wow, a renaissance man?”

While the average American will change jobs 11 times over his or her lifetime, rarely do such changes involve complete reinvention of one’s career. Such tectonic shifts in our professional lives are understandably pathologized by a society that rewards stability, and frowns on unpredictability.

Yet, far from being pathological, such shifts may identify individuals motivated by a profound need for meaning in their lives rather than by the rewards associated with climbing the corporate ladder. Though such individuals may grace an organization but for a short time, if properly managed, their positive impact can be profound.  After all, if they can successfully reinvent themselves on numerous occasions, imagine what they can do relative to innovation in your corporation!

So what traits do these professional shape-shifters have in common? Here’s a list – what’s important here is to know what your organization can and cannot live with before bringing this rare creature on-board:

#1: Innovators have difficulty following standards pathways or protocols…preferring to intuitively seek out more efficient or effective ways of managing challenges. Their solutions are often far outside the box.

#2: Innovators are relatively intolerant of organizational resistance to change –neither understanding nor appreciating the value of an organization’s muscle memory. They are the antithesis of the legions of Six Sigma black-belts of whom your organization may be so proud. Innovators are the employees who will poke management with a sharp stick if they fail to get the response they seek.

#3: Innovators are relatively fearless when it comes to change…change is as natural a part of their lives as breathing. Their worth and identity is not tied to the current job…it is based upon where they are at in their existential search for meaning.

#4: They do not suffer fools well…and can exhibit amazing impatience when they perceive that they are dealing with ignorance.

#5: They may disregard corporate protocol as being superfluous and annoying…including such things as chain of commanded.

#6: They may not filter what they say or how they say it. After all, it is the truth, from their perspective, and, as such, needs not to be framed or apologized for.

#7: They do not revere loyalty in the traditional sense. You won’t be rewarding these innovators with a gold watch after 30 years of service. The most you can hope for is to part company as valued colleagues…and wish the innovator well as he or she moves on to yet another reinvention.

Such individuals need to have a culture that can embrace and adapt to their idiosyncratic nature. Many of these traits are immutable, though good innovators can be coached on how to get their ideas across in a semi-politically astute manner.

If you can create the right conditions for such an innovator, you should expect:

  • The potential for radical, out of the box thinking that will outstrip any linear planning processes currently in place in your organization
  • The potential for vision that seeks possibilities previously completely oblique to your organization and leadership team.
  • Ways of creating synergies that were not previously identified
  • The ability to challenge and catalyze positive change in your corporate culture
  • The ability to attract great talent to your team

Where do you find such individuals?  First, you have to open your eyes to the possibilities. One of the most innovative thinkers I ever hired was a gentleman applying for a copy-writing position with my company. Though he had never been in such a position before, he proudly proclaimed that he would be, in short order, the best copywriter in town. His resume was eclectic, to say the least…including past job jobs as an exterminator and manager of a low-income housing project, while also having earned a Ph.D, and being honored as a Fulbright Scholar. What matters most is that he lived up to his boastful claim – he became a superlative writer with highly innovative ideas.

I am writing this post because I work in the health care arena, where transformational change often times seems to be an oxymoron, and problems are resolved at a glacial pace.  I’m convinced that, if we are to address the plethora of complex issues that keep our health care system from delivering safe, affordable, high quality care, a good starting point would be to replace our black-belts with new true innovators…and then step out of the way and empower them to work their magic.