On Being a Rudolph

I’ve been called a lot of names over the years but it was the first time I had been referred to as a Rudolph. Yes, Rudolph.  As in Rudolph-the-Red-Nosed-Reindeer.

It happened as I was recently whining to a friend of mine about some of my workplace challenges. He shook his head, smiled, and said, “It’s because you are a Rudolph!”

Somewhat perplexed because I definitely knew I wasn’t guiding Santa’s sleigh nor was my nose especially red, I asked what he meant. He went on to explain that he had just finished reading a book called The Rudolph Factor.

The Rudolph Factor is a book by Cyndi Laurin and Craig Morningstar about how to ensure innovative organizations by tapping into bright ideas from employees. Essentially, it’s about creative, entrepreneurial thinkers who, like Rudolph, don’t always fit within our cultural norms. While they may look like everyone else, they are just a little different – they can’t turn off their creative juices (or perhaps their glowing nose?).

As my friend summarized for me, Rudolphs generally solve problems in not-so-typical ways – in large part because they have an easier time than most in identifying the root cause of a problem.  As system-thinkers, they also express frustration at putting band-aids on symptoms of problems because, as the authors suggest, they’d much prefer getting their hands (or hooves) dirty.

They also suggest that Rudolphs are naturally creative and innovative thinkers who see their world through a lens of possibility, opportunity, and potential. They are passionate about their work and light up when talking about their role or a particular project they are working on. They spend an average of four to six hours per day outside of their normal workday thinking like entrepreneurs about new ways of doing things or making things better for their organizations. Contrary to what people might think, they don’t want to run their own business as it would take time away from being creative and innovative.

Rudolphs often ask “Why?” even when it is not the most popular question to be asking. They tend to challenge the status quo because they believe questioning it is of value and will be of benefit to the organization. Challenging the status quo is also how they discover what they need in order to solve a problem.

So, once my friend had explained what it meant to be a Rudolph, I admit I was bit flattered. However, the reality is that there is definitely a downside.

Too often being a Rudolph feels like a curse because in addition to not being able to turn off your thinking, there are few who seem to value the resulting ideas or how long they’ve taken to develop. And, there’s also that propensity to keep asking “why” and for challenging the status quo. Some tend to think you’re doing that just for the sake of rocking the boat.

Rudolph ideas can also be a bit frightening to peers and managers because the counter-intuitive approach brings a level of risk along with it. And, while a lot of organizations want innovative and inventive ideas, they don’t necessarily want the inherent risk that goes along with it. In my experience, this too often means the ideas from the Rudolphs among us are ignored and they themselves are thought of as outcasts, loose cannons, misfits, or troublemakers.

So is it possible to create organizational environments that will allow Rudolphs and innovation to thrive? 

The authors suggest that we need to lead in ways that don’t force people to check their red nose at the door. The old, yet too often prevalent, command-and-control style of management does not nurture Rudolphs.

Instead, leaders must continually be more participative than autocratic, treat all employees as partners regardless of their titles, and focus on removing barriers and providing resources for people to be successful.

It will also be essential to recognize and support Rudolphs by providing them an outlet for sharing ideas on a regular basis, to protect them from unsupportive managers as well as ill-willed peers (because Rudolphs are commonly seen as a threat), give them permission to take risks and share unconventional ideas, ensure access to collaborative teams that also include non-Rudolphs, and give them the ability to execute their ideas.

Giving employees a voice and an avenue to implement their ideas can’t help but result in the innovative and creative thinking that will ensure footprints of innovation in an organization -  or would that be hoof prints? 

Posted on 12-11-11


Great blog, Brenda! And think - Rudolph not only led the way, saved the day, and got his own tv show, he is also an iconic example (that we treasure to this day) as to why the ‘misfits’ around us are as important as those who don’t rock the boat.  Or pull the sleigh, as they say.  Nice one!

•Posted by Janet Naclia  on  12/12/11  at  02:35 PM

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