Bottling Non-Conformity

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Why trailblazers are not typically accepted at first

By Alyssa Ruane

Think about Elvis Presley. Before he was lauded as the “King of Rock and Roll,” the police told him that he could not swing his hips onstage. His dance moves were so offensive that 1956 newspaper headlines announced that he would have to clean up his act if he wanted to continue his career.

Look at the Presley legend today. 

It often takes someone willing to sacrifice immediate acceptance in order to make true, groundbreaking progress in any industry. No matter if it’s the music industry, printing industry or another, innovation only comes when a person (or group of people) is an outlier. A weirdo. A curious soul. Someone who dances to the beat of a different drum. A kook, perhaps.

Chris Guillebeau, author of “The Art of Nonconformity,” says the world needs people who question norms and values. You never know how one shift in perspective can inspire generations to come – with any medium.

Can you imagine a world without Elvis’ influence? Who knows how long it would’ve taken us to move our hips. Without that evolution of social dancing, the huge hip-hop movement of the ’90s may have never happened. 

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Of course, in the corporate world, “creative thinkers” aren’t always accepted. While their fresh thoughts and points-of-view are needed for growth, there’s only so far a company can stray before wondering what’s worth the time and money. This delicate balance leads us to one question: How can we capture the essence of non-conformity (the creative ideas that drive a company forward) without letting new ideas derail the entire livelihood and structure of a company?

Creativity versus Conformity

Finding a happy medium between stimulating creativity and conforming to a set of norms can help breed a progressive company culture that encourages out-of-the-box thinking. Guillebeau says that type of culture is one way to stimulate company growth: “Foster environments where different perspectives are valued and people are encouraged to experiment.”

But creating an environment where different perspectives are valued can be tough in today’s corporate world. When people hold traditions too closely, they risk fizzling out when the market or other factors change. That’s why the culture shift must start at the top. 

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Once someone feels the rush that comes with creative success, they’ll want more. Using creativity to stimulate growth and progress is contagious.

– Jill Hollingsworth, Global Senior Director of Employee Communications, Molson Coors

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“Leaders must genuinely want and support nonconformity in their organizations, and then they need to demonstrate that in their communications and actions,” says Jill Hollingsworth, Molson Coors’ Global Senior Director of Employee Communications. “At the same time, they have to allow for failures, because true creative nonconformity is impossible without them.”

Take how Molson Coors, the world’s fifth-largest brewer by volume, fosters such an environment. “At Molson Coors, taking smart risks is a core behavior in our culture and one against which we measure individual performance,” Hollingsworth says. “Stories of people who are curious and challenge the expected while using a growth mindset to fuel innovation are shared and celebrated. Using colleagues as role models is an effective way to inspire and embed cultural change.”

Guillebeau believes that sharing stories of successful nonconformists can spark the innovation bug in others. “I think it’s good to shine a spotlight on different people who’ve chosen to pursue an unconventional path. Those kinds of stories tend to encourage others to make their own changes far more than anything an expert tells them.”

It’s good to let employees spread their wings a bit. Once company leaders understand the great benefit of celebrating creative thoughts, they can then begin implementing some behaviors of their own to kickstart an innovative culture.

Guillebeau recommends that leaders ask: “Who disagrees with this idea? What’s the counterargument?” This is especially true when making big decisions and most people are in agreement. “It’s important to welcome outliers to come forward with their takes. Asking these questions can sometimes open up space for an alternate view that might have otherwise eclipsed the group.”

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It Starts With One

Employee empowerment can begin with just one person. When corporate leaders are ready to train their teams to lean into nonconformity, it’s important to remember that reaching just one person can be the difference you need to propel your company forward.

If you’re concerned about nonconformity jumbling the decades-old rules and structure built to keep business humming, remind yourself that there is a certain balance to seek. Creative thinkers are often rare, but you never know if you haven’t given them the chance to speak up.

So, when empowering employees, draw from Guillebeau’s advice. “Individuals can improve themselves by thinking differently and becoming intentional about their life’s pursuits. Ask yourself: ‘What’s most important to me? If I could only fix one problem, what would it be?’ Then, start taking small steps toward that goal however you can.”

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Guillebeau says it’s imperative that individuals – from the top of the ladder to the bottom – choose and adopt their own values, at least if they are going to be successful long-term.

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But to encourage individuals to explore their passions within the company, Hollingsworth recommends setting concrete standards. This way, the opportunity for growth is there, but it’s not at the cost of what’s already been built.

“Businesses that do this well are very clear about what work needs to be standardized and where the opportunities for creativity are,” Hollingsworth says. ”Then, inspiration comes in the form of storytelling. All too often, we think creativity has to be the really big, game-changing idea. Sharing the seemingly small ideas that lead to positive results can show people that creativity is well within their reach if they allow a shift in their mindset.”

Showing that new ideas are valued enough to be explored instills some confidence in those who may have once shied away from sharing their opinions, even if they were strongly held. “Permission and support are key,” Hollingsworth says. “Start with one project or work effort, and encourage new ideas for achieving the desired outcome. Choose and develop one or more of those ideas, and see them through.”

To drive the point home, Hollingsworth says you must celebrate the idea and the person. “It comes down to permission, follow-through, and reinforcement. Once someone feels the rush that comes with creative success, they’ll want more. Using creativity to stimulate growth and progress is contagious.”

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