Overlooked Innovation

Innovation is a word that gets tossed around quite a bit these days. Everyone is looking for an edge, the next great idea, the shining beacon of the future that will put their company on track and ahead of the game.  We all want it, but we’re often not quite sure where to look.

Hold that thought for a second.

I mentioned previously that the HR professional I know are wont to talk about the “interesting” cases they deal with, the troubles, the scofflaws, the outrageous and the incredible.  And one common theme that I’ve noticed lately are the amazing stories of the office thief.

The office thief has pulled some amazing stunts.  A metric ton of office supplies hidden in his socks.  Countless stacks of change smuggled out in her stuffed dog.  A complex series of movements that results in a windfall taken out in $1 increments.  All right under your nose, and often without being detected for months or years.  And that’s just the small timers.  All of these office thieves have a few common traits.

They are motivated

Someone has done them wrong, at least in their view of the world.  Usually it is “the company,” the faceless entity, that has wronged them by passing them over for promotion, giving them a smaller raise than they deserved, raising heath insurance premiums, charging for coffee, or some other grievance.  Their recourse is to take small nibbles at the ankles of the behemoth, getting some sense of satisfaction from that bit of revenge.  So they put their mind to work coming up with ways of getting their revenge.  Because we all know that nothing evens the score like wallpapering your house with neon Post-It notes.

They are clever

The amazing schemes these people concoct make for great networking fodder.  There seems to be a never ending supply of stories about them, and no two are alike.  No matter where you go, you will find tales of the office thief.  Amazingly, it always ends in them getting caught and dismissed, as well as the occasional company pressing charges.  It always makes me wonder, though, about how many more are out there that haven’t been caught yet.

They are energetic

The schemes of the office thief are usually complex and require a lot of work to execute.  Early mornings, late nights and a host of difficulties are often part of their plan.  But because they are motivate, they persevere.  And in the end they often so a whole lot of extra work.  But that’s OK, because they do it by choice.  They are, as we might say, very engaged in their task.  But of course, it’s their task, which makes it palatable.

Back to Innovation

Motivated, clever and energetic are the main ingredients of creativity.  It is the unhappy part that does us in.  But think how many great ideas we could generate if we could find a way to tap the resources of the office thief and use their powers for good!

I’m not suggesting, of course, that when we catch a thief, we promote them.  Instead, I’m suggesting we recognize that they are indeed innovative members of the team, but are misguided.  As a manager of people or an HR practitioner, part of your role is recognizing when an employee is about to go off the rails and guide them back to the land of the productive.  But how often is that guidance pointed toward capturing the festering feeling of resentment into innovation?  Do you instead try to refocus them on the job that led them to be unhappy in the first place?

The next time you are dealing with an unhappy employee, be it displeasure over their role, dissatisfaction with their pay, or just being demotivated in general, think about the damage this person could cause if they turn into the office thief and vent their frustrations.  Then think about the best way to turn that energy, creativity and motivation into a positive force for change.  The results might surprise you.  And them.



  1. Dwane,

    I like the creative class and find that with a little redirection, some amazing things happen. It’s much better than accusing someone of being a thief!

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