‘Misfit’ Management

While many say the best ideas come from thinking “outside of the box,” sometimes it may be better to think outside of the law.

Such is the concept behind Alexa Clay’s and Kyra Maya Phillips’ new book, “The Misfit Economy: Lessons in Creativity From Pirates, Hackers, Gangsters and Other Informal Entrepreneurs.”

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Intrigued by the way so-called outlaws solve problems, Clay and Phillips decided to view them not just as “deviant entrepreneurs” that pose a threat to social and economic stability but also focus on the way they produce when confronted with legitimate business problems. The resulting book is a collection of misfit archetypes and creative strategies that traditional types could learn from.

Phillips talked with Talent Management about how to support misfits in the workplace. Edited excerpts follow.  

What made you think corporate America could learn from societal misfits?

I have a background in journalism and consulting, and Alexa also works with very large corporations in terms of trying to get them to adopt more sustainable business strategies. We came up with the idea around the time of the global financial crisis, and we were seeing that the traditional economy was leaving a lot of people behind and that we needed to find new sources for new ideas in order to fix what commitment to some old thought had destroyed. The idea was trying to find a new source of inspiration to fix what was happening in the world at that time.

Kyra Maya Phillips

Writer and social innovation specialist 

Co-founder of The Point People, a collective of innovators, artists and entrepreneurs committed to driving systemic change for a more equitable society

Graduate of The London School of Economics and Political Science

Alexa Clay

Writer, culture hacker and innovation strategist

Co-founder of the League of Intrapreneurs, a movement designed to spark corporate social revolution

Featured speaker at SXSW, Tech Open Air Berlin, WFMU, Columbia University, Power to the Pixel, Google, Harvard Business School, HEC-Paris, and re:publica

Bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a master’s degree from Oxford University

What is a misfit and how does the definition change in a corporate setting?

Traditionally, a misfit is understood as either somebody who works within the informal or black market side of the economy, such as the Somali pirate or the gang leader or the drug trafficker or the con artist. That is one end of the spectrum. But for our purposes, these people couldn’t just be outsiders. They had to be disruptive outsiders. They had to exhibit some kind of talent. They had to be strategic and adaptable and alert to the world around them and how they could change that world.

Within the traditional economy these are misfits who are social entrepreneurs or people who work within corporate organizations — also called ‘intrapreneurs’ — people who are trying to shake things up from within. They ignore the rules and do things that their managers wouldn’t be proud of, such as not asking for permission or stepping outside of the status quo around how the company works. Those are misfits.

How can employees connect with their ‘inner misfit’?

The book was written to five different ways to unleash your inner misfit: ‘hustle,’ ‘hack,’ ‘provoke,’ ‘pivot’ and ‘copy.’

The central lesson with ‘hustle’ is paying attention to the world around you. ‘Hustle’ is definitely a term that has beenmisrepresented in terms of meaning moving quickly. We took a step back and said it’s about waking up and seeing the world around you and paying attention to what is going on and seeing how you can make due with the resources that you have. Our interview with the former prisoner shows this. Prisoners have a lot of time to observe their environments when they are incarcerated, but they also have to make due with their limited resources, and that made them into a lot more perceptive entrepreneur.

The ‘copy’ lesson means that innovation and creativity comes from copying things and being creative in how you apply them to your own situations. Don’t be afraid to give your ideas away, but also don’t be afraid to build on other people’s ideas. Often we get stuck into thinking that we need to come up with something completely original when really that’s not conceivable these days.

Next is ‘hack.’ We approached this chapter by studying the hacker mindset, how a hacker thinks and what their ethic is in working. What we found was that they understand the systems they are trying to change before they go in and change them. They become completely one with those systems and they understand every element of that system and how those elements connect to each other. That really struck us because of the way the world works today and how the economy works today. We live in an on-demand, superficial economy where we look at problems very, very quickly and fix things very quickly, and I think that’s a consequence of how we consume information. I think that if we apply hack mindset to everything, then we can truly tackle the problems that are most pressing and most challenging.

‘Pivot’ is about internal changes. This is the most personal chapter in the book, which describes how you can change the direction of your life even when you’re facing challenges. You can do so with intention and being in a very resourceful way as well. People talk about pivots for startups or pivots for large organizations that change directions in terms of what they focus on, but this is really about how you do that for yourself and a lot of that is about stopping and building pockets of stillness into your life.

The last chapter is ‘provoke.’ This is about sparking up the imagination. It explores the role of alternative realities in innovation. We talk about the world of science fiction in space exploration and the fact that Neil Armstrong spoke about the influence that he had in science fiction and that he would have never gone to space if the idea of even going to space had not been proposed by science-fiction writers.

What can talent managers do to develop employees’ ‘inner misfit’?

I think that self-governance in an organization is really important. There have been a lot of reports and surveys that innovation lags in organizations where employees don’t feel like they have the ability to make decisions and kick-start things on their own. We studied a few stories that tackled cases such as this.

 For instance, 18th century pirates had very egalitarian models of operating. They had complete democracies. In terms of applying their approach within a corporate setting, I don’t think it necessarily needs to be blanketed across the entire organization. Instead, focus on individual teams, the tiny little pirate ships within the big company that can really benefit from a democratic approach.