Polly LaBarre’s Maverick Manual for Success
As a founding member of the Fast Company magazine team, Polly LaBarre has seen her share of successes—and failures—in the business world. Now the cofounder and director of Management Lab, she helps businesses and entrepreneurs succeed. She starts by asking them a single question: Are you capable of changing as fast as the world is changing?
Speaking to the audience at Day Two of Xerocon Denver 2015, LaBarre shared the seven tips that make up what she calls her “Maverick Manual for Success”:
1. Stand for Something
According to LaBarre, now more than ever, success hinges on standing out from the crowd and doing what it takes to make people pay attention. “Today you really have to make a case for why what you do matters. So you have to stand by a set of ideals,” LaBarre explained. “You have to imagine and advocate for a better future.” Nothing is more compelling than someone driven by a sense of purpose, both in life and in the world of business. And purpose, as LaBarre defines it, isn’t a wishy-washy sense of well-meaning, but a way to refine and focus your talents. “Purpose,” she says, “is really about sharpening your edges.”
2. Lead Without Authority
“It’s very clear that the age of the all-powerful, all-knowing leader is over,” declares LaBarre. Most 21st-century organizations struggle to find balance between control and employee freedom. They know this is the path not only to a great work culture, but also to customer satisfaction. Freedom and happiness tend to trickle into the products and services that companies that get it right produce. . Here are some of the signs of a non-traditional, non-hierarchical management structure:
- Coordination happens without centralization
- All ideas compete on equal footing
- Power comes from sharing, not hoarding
- The wisdom of the many trumps the authority of the few
- Novel viewpoints get amplified
- Mediocrity gets exposed
3. Do the Work of Art
“Art is work that can change someone for the better,” says LaBarre. Many of the most successful individuals and organizations today strive to inject some creativity into everything they produce. “Creativity is central to what it means to be human,” explains LaBarre. “The problem is, we tend to grow out of our creativity instead of growing into it.” To “do the work of art,” no matter what business we’re in, we need only to become more serious about experimenting, iterating, and prototyping. As Pixar’s mantra puts it, “Be wrong as fast as possible,” because for every 1,000 ideas, there may be only one that’s a real home run.
4. Learn As Fast As the World Is Changing
To keep up with the pace of change today, LaBarre says, “We have to cultivate a first-person experience of the future.” What does that mean? It means being open and hungry for change, and willing to get outside of our comfort zones as much as possible. LaBarre cites the Randomised Coffee Trials, or RCT, pioneered by Nesta. They used an algorithm to determine, randomly, which employees would meet up for informal coffee meetings. It’s well known that establishing weak ties with people you wouldn’t ordinarily hang out with can spark new creative insights. The best inspiration often comes from an unexpected meeting of normally separate ideas. But it’s also important to be humble and receptive so those insights have room to arise. “You can’t learn anything new,” says LaBarre, “without a solid dose of humility.”
5. Ask More Questions than You Give Answers
“In a world that is filled with ever-expanding complexity. Where no single person can really have all the answers anymore. Someone who is open and driven by questions can surface more possibilities. Attract more perspectives. Enlist more support than someone who is closed down by certainty,” says LaBarre. How much of your time do you spend listening and asking questions as opposed to making assertive statements? If you start paying attention, you might be surprised by what you find. LaBarre assures us that most people need to actively practice the art of listening and inquiring. Because while those skills may have come more naturally to us when we were younger, it takes work to rethink the many conclusions and assumptions we’ve accumulated over time. “Practicing innocence,” she says, “takes courage.”
6. Practice Dissent
“Your job as a manager is to encourage employees to misbehave in some way, to get away with something,” says LaBarre—at least if you have any hope of innovating outside of the ordinary. “It’s the questions nobody’s asking for,” she points out, “that yield the innovative ideas that nobody has tried before.” So hang out with the disrupters, the outlaws, and the outsiders. Learn from them. See how you can apply their reckless, out-of-the-box approaches to the way you run your business. Above all else, LaBarre recommends that everyone learn to “invite the subversive in” rather than being afraid of what, at first glance, might be a little unnerving.
7. Rock the Boat (But Don’t Tip it Over)
While pursuing radical transformation as if there’s no tomorrow is all well and good—how does one rock the boat without either falling out of it or overturning it? This is especially important for anyone who’s part of an organization where “positive deviations” might not always be appreciated. “Steve Jobs famously said that it’s more fun to be a pirate than to be in the navy,” says LaBarre. “But what if you’re a pirate in the navy?” As with all the strategies above, finding the middle way between extremes is probably the safest course. But don’t let fear of potentially capsizing yourself or your company hold you back from at least making moves in destabilizing directions. There wouldn’t be anything very maverick about that.