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The World Needs Mavericks - Here's Why!
Why mavericks and game-changers matter in business, politics and society
A new book by a professional English rugby player called Danny Cipriani (not the restaurant) got us thinking. It seems a preference for pragmatists over visionaries is holding the England rugby team back. His book, Who Am I? (good question), prompts a wider question: Who are mavericks and change agents and what is their place in an overcrowded, increasingly robotic society?
According to the Guardian ‘Cipriani is bluntly expressing what the rest of us have been trying to articulate for years. For a variety of reasons rugby in England – and a few other places – has been instantly suspicious of mavericks or anyone possessed of slightly left-field vision. You can see why not every coach wanted to place their whole professional futures in the socially busy hands of Cipriani but, equally, what might have come to pass had they done so?
Actually, we do sort of know the answer to that. When Cipriani was finally invited by Eddie Jones to start in the third Test against South Africa in a sodden Cape Town in 2018, he responded by winning the game for England with an opportunistic cross-kick which, he now admits, was a punt in every sense of the word. Relying on instinct as opposed to cool-headed calculation, he duly produced something out of the ordinary which paid off handsomely.
Cipriani’s reward? He never played for England again. Which tells you much about the lack of trust in the unorthodox that has become English rugby’s defining trait. When the going gets tough – and even when it isn’t – the reaction is to play the percentages rather than think that little bit smarter.
All this has seemingly reached its logical conclusion under Steve Borthwick, to the point where no-one is trying much at all any more.’ It seems they are too afraid!
In their desperation not to be undone defensively the English team had retreated so far into their shells they had basically forgotten the way back out. Visionaries can rock the boat -whoa- but, without them, there’s only strictly limited imagination. Better to aim high and fall short than settle for dull, formulaic failure. More like Tom Cruise than Cafe Nero?
As we increasingly attempt to corporatise the planet in the name of efficiency and AI we should remember that not every individual wants to be WALL-E and that mavericks matter! (insert i-robot wink here)
It feels like corporations could do with a little more ‘revolution’. After all, pretty much every mature company in every industry in pretty much every part of the world is at risk from outside disrupters. In the face of this danger, senior executives often feel helpless. They have watched as one industry after another has been overrun by smart, new companies. A bit like the English facing the French rugby team?
Only 12% of the companies in the Fortune 500 fifty years ago still exist today.
It seems that playing defensive and staying with the same formula time over time is a path destined to bury the establishment. Like a ticking time bomb. Just look at Wilco! But similar examples are all around us like a minefield for progress - in society, government and big business. The inertia is stifling and smothering.
And yet we would do well to remember that 90% of new startups fail, including 75% of venture backed startups. Only 40% of startups that survive actually make a profit. And it seems that around 80% of businesses that fail do so because of cash problems, which means they didn’t find a product-to-market fit fast enough - or they burnt too much money on the way. Driving change is not easy. Many of us run from it or try to brush it under a carpet named ‘delusion’.
Was Steve Jobs delusional for wanting to use a mouse to chase our instructions around a graphical interface on a cheaper, smaller computer? Was Elon Musk delusional for thinking that he could shift Twitter (now X??!!) from a news messaging app into something we might rely on for payments, commerce and games? Are the new owners of Chelsea football club delusional for thinking that they can fire all the experienced players and build a winning team from a bunch of talented youngsters? OK, so maybe that is a little delusional… Were the founders of Beenz delusional for inventing digital money more than a decade prior to the crypto craze?
The trivial ability to brush aside new investors and inventions because they are different and sometimes incomprehensible might prove to be our greatest downfall. It certainly has been for government bodies and large corporations. Corporate incubators are littered with failure. If venture capital companies achieve a success rate of 10-12% of the ventures they back corporations achieve about half of that - meaning a failure rate of around 95%!
It seems their venture factories are bust. Perhaps they are stifled by a classic corporate blend of inertia, innovation antibodies and unmovable orthodoxies. Not exactly the best environment for developing tomorrow's innovators. Apparently a little like the English rugby team, left with only one gear - a defensive gear. One that is more likely to push into reverse than cruising to a brighter future.
The problem is that business and society has a fear of mavericks like Danny Cipriani.
Mavericks are harder to manage. They run at their own pace and in their own way. And they can do good or bad - succeed or more likely fail. They can be more Trump than Reagan - more Johnson than Thatcher. And they can drive you mad. Have you ever tried managing a real artist? Well, it seems that the folk we need to drive change and do the extraordinary in a post-industrial, high-innovation world are more Johnny Rotten than Rishi Sunak.
Who would you bet on to change the world?
Managing Johnny Rotten is akin to herding a pigeon. To succeed we will need managers that are different. Leaders that are change agents themselves and high level thinkers that leave room for others to do their out of the box stuff. They can add corporate, robotic process merchants later in the life of the new change - when things are working. Or, like Pep Guardiola, they could just keep changing the game so every other (football) manager has to keep running just to keep up. Never becoming corporate - never standing still.
Perhaps we should all try to embrace change a little more. After all, we have some huge issues to tackle and much to improve - from climate to AI to inequality, factionalism and regionalisation. Perhaps Danny Cipriani need not ask Who Am I? He is a maverick and an innovator. Perhaps he should aspire to be the next England rugby coach. It sounds like he might be needed.
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