When to Intentionally Grow Weeds

Could cultivating weeds be good for your organization? The MIT Sloan Management Review says, “Yes!” An article in the Summer 2014 edition reviews hiring practices of private sector companies deliberately hiring people with atypical, idiosyncratic talent – people with autism, nerds, outcasts, and college dropouts. People who think differently. While some of the hiring pairs autistic adults with specific tasks like checking software code, the authors argue the benefits of this practice surpass that narrow example.

The authors call this The Dandelion Principle – the notion that dandelions have many positive qualities and are only weeds in a uniformly green grass lawn. They point out that talented people in any organization might be behaviorally or neurologically different. They might not fit into standard job categories with standard roles, but they might contribute enormously if work is designed to facilitate their capabilities.

The authors argue a shift is taking place in hiring practices because of how value is created in today’s markets. Innovation is replacing the efficiency that mattered so much in industrial era work. Efficiency required getting people and machines to “mesh more smoothly,” with the emphasis on “parts fitting in and reducing variation around averages.” Innovation involves “finding new and better ideas and using new processes. Managing innovation is less about averages and more about understanding outliers. The emphasis is on increasing interesting variation, then identifying value in some of the variants.”

In addition to the benefits of hiring people who think differently to support innovation – because innovation “comes from the edges” – the authors argue companies that make this shift also realize benefits for traditional employees. “Learning to adapt a management style to better fit an individual employee” helps “think about work environments from the employees’ perspective.” The authors argue this mindset “can provide managers with a tool that can generate impact in many parts of an organization.”

The authors offer “A New Approach To Managing People” in a matrix that compares the traditional HR approach to The Dandelion Principle Approach against work design, recruitment and selection, and training and development.

You can read it all in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Summer 2014, Volume 55, No. 4. The article is “The Dandelion Principle: Redesigning Work for the Innovation Economy.” The authors are Robert D. Austin and Thorkil Sonne.

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