Is innovation an endangered species in your organization?  It better not be if you want to stay relevant, write authors Watts Wacker and Ryan Mathews in their best-seller, The Deviant’s Advantage: How Fringe Ideas Create Mass Markets. The pair has traced the origins of innovation and found its source begins with a deviant idea in the mind of a person who marches to the beat of a different drummer.  The result is originality and the key to business survival.  Taking advantage of it means more than just recognizing a new idea.  It’s being able to sail a lasting trend on the world’s ocean of fads.

    The Deviant’s Advantage was born after authors Wacker and Mathews realized all originality in business is a deviance. It happens when someone operating outside the norm becomes a force for innovation that can move those ‘left-of-center’ ideas into the middle of a mass market. Take, for example, a little known company like Microsoft beating out IBM at personal computing. When the latter didn’t grasp why anyone would need a portable computer and instead set its focus on mainframes, Microsoft stepped in to commercialize the user interfaces used around the world today.     

    All the book’s examples of how the deviant ends up centerstage follow the authors’ five-step framework. Fringe is where everything is very basic and very wild. Over time, innovation moves to the Edge, where an idea can gain a cult following. Tamed ideas soon attract an audience that propels them to the Realm of the Cool,  and with broader acceptance to The Next Big Thing. Here, desire is high and innovation is one small step from the mainstream, or Social Convention.

    Old and new innovators have followed the authors’ framework, making huge fortunes along the way. Take, for example, Sam Walton’s deviance. Walton went against the retail norm and untapped a market of lower-income shoppers in small towns that other predictable thinkers missed. These customers wanted the niceties of a middle-class life at a price they could afford.  Sam Walton delivered, and the rest of the story is history. Last year at Webster we honored the world’s latest deviant thinker as our 2009 Person of the Year. In his address on campus, Twitter creator Jack Dorsey outlined his story of innovation, giving us insight into the new utility that has changed the way the world communicates. Listen to his evolution ( and tell me that the social media phenomenon we call Twitter hasn’t moved from fringe to front-and-center!

    So how do you do it?  Mathews and Wacker suggest you begin by actively engaging your employees, staying open to new ideas, getting out of your comfort zone and exploring all of life’s possibilities. “If you want to be ahead of the curve of change,” founding editor of Fast Company Alan Webber writes, “you’ve got to spend time on the fringes of society.” So embrace deviants. Companies that will own the future are the ones who are continuously challenging their own sense of convention and creating the future they wish to pursue.   

Dr. Benjamin Ola.  Akande is Dean of the School of Business and Technology at Webster University.

Follow him on Twitter: @Benjamin_Akande