The most effective way to strengthen your org — look at your “outliers”

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Catalysts are problems.

At least, historically speaking, in the way that most organizations have been run.

They don’t fit the version of the “high performer” that so many orgs had for so many years — you know, you crush the KPIs handed to you, managed up well, and developed an expertise and capacity in the one small silo you happened to occupy.

But the truth is? The way that people traditionally thought about “high performers” is flawed.

It just doesn’t work past the V1 internet age. (And, let’s be honest, it was already on its last legs by then.)

That way of working falls apart in the face of ambiguity and complexity, and has no space for sensing of the whole system you’re working in — all things that are now absolutely critical to organizational survival.

All the things that made Catalysts “difficult” are now critical capacities for survival and high performance, but most orgs still haven’t caught up. Sure, more people are recognizing the value that Catalysts bring to the table, but they’re kind of seen as unicorns. They can do amazing work, but sometimes they’re just more trouble than they’re worth, right?

And no organization can cater to a bunch of outliers on the off-chance of occasional brilliance.

Here’s the thing though…

Developing your Catalysts isn’t catering to outliers. It’s the most effective way of making your organization healthier as a whole.

A couple years back Google’s Project Aristotle found the 5 factors common to effective, successful teams:

Psychological safety
Structure and clarity

They weren’t researching with an eye towards Catalysts at the time, of course, they were just interested in what made their best teams tick, and what allowed them to function as more than the sum of their parts — but that list is a picture-perfect representation of the things that are non-negotiable for Catalysts to succeed.

Now, you can work to cultivate these areas for everyone in your organization and not just your Catalysts. (In fact, we really recommend that you do!)

But your Catalysts are going to benefit the most from this work, give you the fastest results, and the most ROI in terms of innovation, creativity, engagement, and capacity for complexity — all those great buzzwords going around the corporate space right now.

When your Catalysts are supported, it lights a fire in the rest of the organization.

Catalysts are, by nature, starters. They thrive in disruption, they’re always going to be the people on that far side of the adoption bell curve, and they can’t help but move into action.

So when you start working to create the culture and structure in your organization that gives them what they need, they can’t help but bring the whole organization along with them.

And, given the chance to fire on all cylinders and really let their superpowers out to play, they’ll not only raise the standard of performance of the entire organization, they’ll instinctively future-proof your organization, because they don’t just manage complexity, novelty, and chaos. They seek it out and thrive in it!

Whatever the latest breaking thing is that changes the way we work, they are by their very nature going to be at the front of that. Plus, whatever crises come along, they’ll happily turn their talents to transforming them into opportunities.

The one thing we know for sure about the future of work is that it’s only going to get more complex and chaotic. So why wouldn’t you hone your best assets?

So given all that, how can you support your Catalysts and chaos-proof your org?

You already know that waiting to change your culture and structure until after disruption hits is going to leave you dead in the water. (Just look at all the organizations that have been completely swamped by the changes of the past few years!) The good news is, it’s not actually all that hard to start supporting your Catalysts, and by extension, the rest of your organization.

Four things our research has shown to be especially effective are:

— Do the work as the leader to create a psychologically safe environment.

Without a clear and explicit recognition of where the limits are, no one is going to feel safe enough to let the full scope of their creativity and capacity out to play, much less Catalysts, who are routinely burned by organizations or supervisors who don’t understand what they’re trying to do.

As the leader of Catalysts, you have to make it 100% clear where the boundaries are, and what they can safely do without having to worry about losing their jobs or facing other penalties. Get very clear with yourself about what the guardrails of change are, communicate that to your team, and — this is the most important part — actually follow through with it. Give your Catalysts the safety and structure they need to let their brilliance unfold, and you’ll be amazed at what they do.

— Recognize your Catalyst’s strengths, and connect them to the kinds of challenges they love.

Trying to shove your Catalysts into the same-old same-old is like using a racecar to go pick up your groceries. These people thrive on difficult, weird challenges that require them to work outside the lines and do the impossible. So see what you can do to identify your Catalysts, and then make a list of the most intractable, complex, chaotic issues you’ve got going on. Then wind them up and watch them go!

— Provide them with relevant training they can practice in real-time.

The fastest way to make a Catalyst check out is by giving them a whole bunch of irrelevant information they have to learn “just because”. Catalysts think fast, learn fast, fail fast, and improve fast. Give them relevant training for whatever it is you want them to do, but make sure they can practice it in real-time. These are hands-on people who are wasted on learning by rote, or clicking their way through static trainings. Give them the tools and information to do what they need to do, then let them figure out how they want to apply those things.

— Connect them with each other.

Catalysts are often lonely within organizations (especially if they’ve been traumatized or branded as “trouble” before.) But the only thing more powerful than one Catalyst is a bunch of Catalysts working together. They love sharing ideas, bouncing off each other, and coming up with really creative solutions to things that no one would have ever been able to predict.

Your Catalysts aren’t problems. They’re your solution.

And quite frankly, supporting them is the absolute most effective way to survive the exponential curves of disruption and the pace of change that are taking down so many organizations. So give them what they need, invest in their development just a little bit, and they’ll have your entire organization working more creatively and effectively before you know it.


You know the value of Catalysts … but how do you activate them in your org? The Corporate Catalyst program helps you to identify, activate and develop your Catalysts so you can create massive organizational impact. Find out more here.

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