When companies talk about innovation, they’re really talking about taking action — turning creative solutions into tangible products and services. And while it’s usually the default move to seek out the people on your team who have familiarity with the business and its processes, it might not actually be the smartest. True, they’ll have prior knowledge of how innovation plays out in the company culture, and they’ll be able to foresee potential issues based on past experiences, but that also means they’re incapable of looking at a new project with truly fresh perspectives.

One way to avoid stale thinking is to look at the unlikely innovators — people outside your team that you’ve never thought of bringing into the fold, but whose lack of direct interaction with the usual crowd could actually shed light onto untraveled paths.

The Frustrated Deviant

It’s not unknown for companies to harbor one or two people who believe that the higher-ups are muddling about; these are the employees who often start sentences with “If I were running this campaign” or “It would’ve been smarter and easier if…” It’s easy to dismiss them as negative, uncooperative naysayers who just don’t understand collaboration and teamwork — but that’s not necessarily the case.

What would happen if they were leading the campaign? What if someone finally listened to what they had to say? What if, instead of perceiving these people as pessimistic grumblers, the powers-that-be viewed them as untapped sources of new ideas that simply never had an outlet? Think about it: they’re already voicing their opinions. They’re passionate enough about what the company’s doing that they imagine how they’d handle things if they were given the chance. They care enough to be offended by approaches that they see as senseless or flawed, and you’ll often find them offering up unsolicited advice to people who have their hands on the project in question.

Companies shouldn’t so readily dismiss their resident objectors. Sure, giving them a forum might result in nothing but nagging, but it could also inspire ingenuity.

The Dormouse

It’s difficult to make accurate assumptions about what people are thinking, especially if they tend to keep their mouths shut. As a result, quiet folks often get left out of important conversations and decisions, are forgotten, or are labeled “distracted” if they choose to sit back and listen while others brainstorm and debate. But silence doesn’t always equal apathy, and just because a person doesn’t chomp at the bit for opportunities to be heard doesn’t mean they have nothing to say. It’s important that companies recognize the power of introverts.

“Quiet people have the loudest minds,” said Stephen Hawking, arguably one of the most influential and brilliant scientists of our time. And, blanket statement though that may be, the man has a point — verbal reticence isn’t an outright reflection of inner dialogue, and often has more to do with deep, analytical thought than lacking voice or opinion. Consider that your close-mouthed crusaders might actually be listening more attentively to pain points, identifying workable solutions more carefully and accurately, and gathering intel before jumping head-first onto the bandwagon.

That said, getting them to open up will probably require gentle prodding, a one-on-one meeting, individualized attention, and asking the right kinds of questions (think things that can’t be answered with a head-nod). This is where team leaders come in — it’s their job to utilize all available resources, especially the ones that seem, at first, a little dubious.

That Girl From Sales (or Guy From HR, Lady From Engineering, Etc.)

Every once in awhile, you might notice that someone from one department spends a gratuitous amount of time hovering about another area. Of course, this is often a byproduct of office friendships or one-time partnerships, but who’s to say it’s not a sign of professional interest?

If a person started at a company as say, an office administrator or a temp, but had an interest in design, it would only be natural for them to chat up the Art Director, right? Or maybe they have a great idea for a blog piece or campaign, but because they’re not part of Marketing, are hesitant to suggest it. A person’s worth can’t be strictly defined by the role they play in an organization, and putting practices in place to stir more open, cross-functional conversation — like old-school suggestion boxes, “town hall” gatherings, or even just a highly-visible open-door policies, can help augment conversations and bring innovation to light from all corners of your business.

Who are some of the unlikely innovators in your company? Tell us about them in the comments.

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