Our culture has almost a sense of hero worship for those who break loose from the confines of their corporate lives to live their dream and innovate without restriction.
How many movies have you seen about a Wall Street or Madison Avenue executive who gives up the frenetic urban lifestyle to move to rural Vermont and start something like an organic, small-batch baby food company?
The whole concept of being stifled by rules and structure hit me very hard during a Thanksgiving binge-watching of the Netflix series Chef’s Table.
In one episode, eccentric culinary genius Grant Achatz says that even the most innovative restaurants, places like the iconic French Laundry, were too confining for him. His individual creativity was being subsumed into legendary owner Michael Keller’s brand, he felt. It is no secret that Achatz went on to open Michelin-rated Alinea, which was also rated the best restaurant in America.
In my thriving-on-chaos career, I’ve been through the exhilaration of leaving incredibly well-established global brands to chase professional dreams around the world on my own terms. When I ventured out, I always felt an initial anxiety in realizing I couldn’t pick up a phone to get research or support from a colleague. There was also the underestimation of how high the corporate safety net was, ironically accompanied by that buzz of walking the tightrope without a safety net.
But the thrill of independence usually exceeded the downside for me. As with Achatz, at that moment of being a free agent, I knew that anything “invented” going forward would be done under my own personal and professional brand.
My new independence led me to the good fortune of being invited to sit on a variety of Boards of Directors, where I could study complex organizations from the outside-in through a governance lens. I was able to be a direct influence on innovation without the risk-reward limitations that many large organizations impose upon their most creative employees.
As time went on, the academic side of my brain became consumed with studying how difficult it was to change “complacency cultures” within rapidly transforming industries. The most amazing aspect to me was that the radical transformation being resisted was often the only means of survival. It wasn’t just change for the sake of change
I suddenly had a personal brand epiphany. While I thought that leaving the corporate structure for a “no rules” professional life would be stimulating, in fact, the rules actually generated the chaos I thrived on. Unlike Achatz, I had to leave the confines of a no-rules environment in order to innovate.
Instead of pursuing innovation solely within my own brand, I realized the power of multiplying those innovations by embedding it, anonymously, in other brands and distributing it on a broader scale. This reminded me of the iconic BASF ads with the tagline “We don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.”
I could contribute my creativity in a smaller, more singular scale through consulting projects, or “syndicate” those innovations on a much larger, albeit anonymous, scale.
The key lesson I learned is that agile innovation in a single proprietorship with no confines, while satisfying, is relatively easy. Granted, the creative juices needed to create something new (and get paid for it!) can’t be underestimated, whether you’re operating in your own business or in a corporate setting.
But inspiring and deploying the same agile innovations within the confines of a complex enterprise, where there are rules aplenty and where change is glacial is not for the faint at heart, can be incredibly fulfilling. And for those who feel death-defying, this risk-intensive business experience can be the ultimate reward.