What are corporate rebels?

For the past 100 years, corporate rebels have been the most successful innovators in big companies.

Person using compass and map, next to notebook and saddle bag.
Photo by Matthew Henry

Corporate rebels are the employees who skip the part where you are supposed to ask permission. When they have a big idea for the company, they just quietly start working on it.

Corporate rebels still do their regular job. But they also work on their unofficial skunkworks project. Whenever they can free up some time. Under the radar, where it won’t cause any harm. The ground rules are simple. Never create risk. Never let it interfere with assigned duties.

It turns out, about 20% of time at work is whitespace. It’s an unescapable reality wherever you have schedules and deadlines. Most employees let this time slip away. Corporate rebels put it to work, trying to create the next breakthrough for the company.

The goal with these skunkworks projects is always the same. To get the project far enough along for managers to understand the potential. Corporate rebels want their projects to be accepted by the company. But they understand it’s hard to sell ideas. Projects with traction sell themselves.

It’s important to understand that if an employee can win approval for their project upfront, they won’t become a corporate rebel. They will go the official route. But those are not the projects that become billion-dollar breakthroughs. Breakthroughs come from the crazy ideas that nobody likes, until they work. They take people by surprise. This is why the first step cannot be for employees to get permission to work on their ideas.

For the past 100 years, corporate rebels have been the most successful innovators in big companies. It’s how Gary Starkweather created the laser printer at Xerox. Shuji Nakamura created LED lighting at Nichia. Gary Klassen created BlackBerry Messenger at RIM. And so much more.

Thanks for reading

This series explores the corporate rebel model, and what the history of breakthroughs is trying to teach us.

I’d love you to join in the discussion below.

Kind regards,

Jim Verquist

2 responses to “What are corporate rebels?”

  1. Nigel Simpson Avatar
    Nigel Simpson

    Right on! Innovators don’t play by the rules and they never ask for permission. Corporate processes and the people that run them favor stability and predictability, neither of which apply to innovation projects. The process people don’t have a model for dealing with gambles and long shots.

    I wrote about how to innovate when you’re afraid to lead:

  2. Jim Verquist Avatar
    Jim Verquist

    That is such a great article you wrote! Perfect compliment to my brief introduction to corporate rebels. Thank you for sharing!

    I love your corporate rebel story! The way you describe it is exactly how it works.

    I didn’t know Sun Microsystems had such an awesome culture. I’ve been meaning to read the book, “High noon : the inside story of Scott McNealy and the rise of Sun Microsystems” by Karen Southwick. I just bumped it to the top of my reading list. I love the mantra you mentioned, “To ask permission is to seek denial.” Yes!!!

    A few caveats on what you wrote. Every unofficial skunkworks project is different. In some cases, the advice you gave makes perfect sense. But for many projects, there is no way to “validate your vision” or “build a coalition” until you make some progress. Many projects make no sense to people until they see it in action. Especially breakthrough ideas. So you have to trust in yourself and just start working on it. By yourself. The validation and coalition building come later.

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