Don’t be afraid of offbeat employees – bring out the best in them!

Last week, I stumbled across what is probably my favourite news story of the year.

In a nutshell, Spalding Grammar School in Lincolnshire decided to ban large bags after a junior pupil was accidentally hit by one.

This new rule irritated sixth former, Jacob Ford, who pointed out that he and his peers needed to carry “folders, books, pencil cases, calculators and other items to and from school.”

So Jacob not only wrote a 3,300 word defence of taking large bags to school but he also decided to stage a witty, silent protest.

One day he brought his books and equipment in a large, wicker basket. Another day he stashed them in a saucepan. Then he upgraded to using part of a lawnmower. And then, in a true pièce de résistance, he brought his kit to school inside a microwave oven.

Jacob’s protest may not (yet) have brought about the rule change that he wanted but it certainly threw the spotlight on what most people will agree were overzealous regulations. His story has been all over the press and social media, and not for the reasons the school would like.

The story got me thinking about how it’s healthy for organisations – businesses included – to nurture offbeat talent.

It can be a difficult path to follow. Offbeat employees can be disruptive, challenging, non-conformist, ignore rules and tear up conventional wisdom within your business.

The key, though, is to create the context in which those qualities become an asset rather than a problem.

For example, offbeat people can be highly creative and spot new business opportunities, markets for new products or more effective ways of working.

Which right thinking business would want to turn these talents down?

A good way of thinking about it is to consider the people who have built highly successful careers by thinking and acting differently. Names like Sir Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Warren Buffet would all spring to mind. They are people who excelled by turning their respective industries upside down in search of new – and better – ways of doing things.

Cast your net a bit wider, and you’ll see disruptive companies thriving more than even in the online age.

Airbnb has redefined the way we find accommodation. Lyft and Uber have changed the way we travel. Spotify has put millions of hours of music in our pockets in exchange for free or for very small subscriptions. The list goes on.

So how do you harness disruptive talent? The key is to contextualise people’s characteristics. So if they’re bad at planning, remember this means that can be very responsive. If they’re terrible at detail, give them the space to come up with big ideas and fresh thinking. If they challenge the way your business does things, ask them how they would improve them for everyone.

In ways like these, you can benefit from the positives of offbeat employees while containing the potential damage they can also do.

And as the Head of Spalding Grammar School may now be asking himself – if an offbeat person isn’t playing by the rules, maybe it’s the rules and not the person that need to change!

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