Here's to the non-conformists
A view from Sue Unerman

Here's to the non-conformists

So one of football's managerial greats has gone. Sir Alex Ferguson's era is finally over. The BBC's chief football writer, Phil McNulty, sums him up in three words: "Charismatic, explosive, contrary."

It is the latter that explains his brilliance, for me. Ferguson has never acted as he was "supposed to". When Wayne Rooney first threatened to quit, back in 2010, Ferguson created a reality-changing "truth turning point" (a pivotal moment in communications that "defies every convention… and gets the audience to the truth quickly and easily", which I examined in detail in my book).

McNulty goes on: "Love him or hate him, football in general and Man United in particular will be poorer for his departure."

Of course, he is hated as well as loved. Which is characteristic for nonconformists and explains why there isn’t a richer pool of non-conformists out there.

This matters. According to Professor Costis Markides, speaking at a Deloitte breakfast earlier this month, non-conformity is the key ingredient to innovation and creativity. Yet learning to conform is almost unavoidable.

Markides cited the landmark survey developed by George Land as a test of creativity. Land ran the test with a group of kids over their childhood and adolescence. Aged five, 98 per cent of the kids qualified as "creative geniuses".

When those same kids were tested aged ten, 30 per cent were at genius level. Aged 15: 12 per cent – at which point the longitudinal test ended (Land quips: "Because everyone got depressed."). But when more than one million adults were given the same test, the result was 2 per cent.

Land concluded that "non-creative behaviour is learned". Or, put it another way, we learn to conform. Most of us like to conform. Resisting conformity can be a lonely road. Most people don’t manage it – even when conforming clearly doesn’t make any sense, as this famous Candid Camera sketch shows clearly.

So here’s to the non-conformists. To those who reject conformity because they don’t think it’s right for them. (Not the ones who are outside the law – that’s not what this is about.) To the people who zig when everyone else zags. Who stay mute when everyone else is singing along. Who won’t take part in communal games and who absent themselves just as the drinking is gaining momentum.

The owner of the banged-up Citröen in a car park full of BMWs. The ones with the unusual dress sense and unpopular taste in music. Who don’t automatically do as they are told, and yet have a good reason.

They should be cherished and they should be encouraged. If you can make room for them within your organisation – and research shows that they are few and far between – they may be the ones that make the real difference in sustained innovation, creativity and competitive advantage.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom