The Agent of Change; Have you had the guts to unleash free radicals in your organization?

Can a force of nature inspire company leaders to welcome change agents into the fold in order to energize the workplace, foment constructive disruption and achieve business progress that wouldn’t be possible in any other way?

Yes. Consider the role of “free radicals” in physics, chemistry and physiology. We can apply the concept of the outsized influence of free radicals in the body to imagine the same kind of impact that a “free radical” can have on and within a company, in a variety of ways.

Think of free radicals in a corporate environment as someone who is as Francesca Gino, Professor at the Harvard Business School, describes a “Rebel Talent”, challenging an authority to evolve.

To the extent most people even understand that “free radical” is a scientific, not political or even organizational, term, they’ve mainly heard them in TV commercials for foods, beverages and nutritional supplements. The “antioxidants” in these products battle free radicals inside the human body for control of cellular processes. That’s where free radicals get a bad name. But there is more to the story. Many people don’t know that free radicals in the body can be a positive.

A free radical is an atom or group of atoms that has an unpaired electron — and therefore is unstable and highly reactive. Think of it as an unchained bee-bee, shot out of a molecular gun and pinging around the body. A free radical then tries to “steal” an electron from a neighboring molecule to attempt to stabilize itself. This reaction can be “good” in the sense that the radical creates an ordinary molecule, all of whose electrons are paired; and it can be “bad” in the sense that the “victim” of the free radical’s action is a molecule that is left an electron short — making that molecule a free radical itself.

Despite their lightly understood reputation, free radicals can serve tremendous positive purposes in the body. For example, the immune system actually creates some free radicals whose purpose is to neutralize viruses and bacteria, helping keep the body well. On the other hand, free radicals do cause negative effects, ranging from accelerating the aging process, to causing cancer, to inflaming the skin. These kinds of free radicals often are formed as the result of exposure to heat, light or something else in the environment.

Just like free radicals in the body, free radicals within a company are the ultimate independent actors. Often it’s this kind of person who will come up with an unconventional idea, an offbeat approach, or contrarian thinking that leads to minor victories and even major breakthroughs in areas as diverse as R&D innovation, manufacturing processes, operational improvements, financial metrics and the internal culture. It is the free radicals who will most likely do the kind of blue-sky thinking that can help a company leapfrog its competitors with a major innovation, or see the kink in a manufacturing operation whose solution will bring a huge increase in efficiency, or force a corporate culture to evolve more quickly than it otherwise would, usually to the positive.

Yet as much as free radicals have the reputation of being free-wheelers, they absolutely need the organizational environment to survive — to give them somewhere to bond to their “missing” electron. Free radicals can bond inside a company in several ways, including finding receptive attitudes around an idea among a small group of colleagues, pairing with another free radical in the company, and even allying with a superior who sponsors and informally oversees some of the disruption brought by the free radical.

“Free radicals” inside an organization can be negative or even destructive; sure. But savvy corporate leaders can learn to encourage such human iconoclasts to think and act big and wide — and at the same time funnel the output of free radicals and throttle them if it looks like they’re getting out of hand.

For free radicals who manage to succeed in maintaining their independence and influence in a company, however, the advice is to watch out for hubris. When channeled, your input can be very valuable to a company. And you may be praised for it. But if you try to go too far outside the rails, a free radical can become a destructive and even cancerous force inside a company.

Free radicals inside a company can be a tremendous force for change, but it takes discipline on the part of colleagues and leaders to ensure these people bring about controlled reactions that can redound for the good of the company — not the chaos that a cascade of free radicals can cause inside an enterprise, just as inside the human body.

For us at Webasto Americas we found these “free radicals” by asking to opt-in into our transformational efforts. We have seen the good, bad and ugly coming out of unleashing free radicals. For me the major lessons learned was not utilizing this tremendous energy would have been a major mistake. Coordinating teams by keeping the spirit up and moving at the same time at high speed in multiple directions is challenging. But having in mind and knowing that all our free radicals truly care about the organization and its wellbeing, helped me to learn to trust.

New ideas, initiatives and the pure level of energy these colleagues are bringing every day to the table, brought us to where we are now — a stable organization with driven and engaged colleagues.

Are you fearless to unleash the “free radicals”?

Chief Financial Officer, VP Human Resources & IT at Webasto Roof Systems Inc.

Originally published at on April 5, 2017.

Originally published at

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