Here's to the Catalysts

My post about the "Priesthood of Corporate Strategy" generated some great discussion from people who have met resistance trying to influence strategy from outside the hallowed halls of strategic planning.  

Across these comments, words and phrases with a common theme kept recurring:  synthesis, catalyst, boundary spanner, system thinking, boxless, growth mindset.  In each case, there was a sense of not fitting inside a single function, practicing a single discipline, or working within a single methodology. 

I know the feeling well.  A recruiter once told me "You either can't hold a job, or there is something interesting going on here.  My Ph.D. was a cross-disciplinary program in Political Economy and Government, but I still felt compelled to add sociology, media studies, cognitive psychology, communication theory and even artificial intelligence.   

The discussion around the post reminded me of the 1997 Apple campaign on the idea of Think Different.  One of the ads was called "Here's to the Crazy Ones." It was a manifesto for people who overturn convention, challenge orthodoxy and disrupt the status quo.   

Here's to the crazy ones.

The misfits.
The rebels.
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.
They're not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.

You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can't do is ignore them.

Because they change things.
They push the human race forward.
While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.

Because the people who are crazy enough to think
they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Just as Apple celebrated the rebels, I think it's time to celebrate the catalysts. Both are out to change the world, but they do it in a different way. Rebels knock down walls, while catalysts build bridges.  Rebels try to overthrow the status quo, while catalysts seek to transform it.  

So in the style of Think Different, I propose the following manifesto:

Here’s to the catalysts. 

The connectors.
The synthesizers.
The boundary spanners.
The ones who don’t stay within the lines.
The ones who live in the in-between.
They're not fond of boundaries.
They find a way to belong even where they aren't wanted.

You can push them down, push them out, or push them aside.
About the only thing you can’t do is put them in a box.

Because they connect things.
They build the bridges and find the threads.
While some see them as an irritation, we see them as an inspiration.

Because the people who are crazy enough to think
they can change the world, are the ones who do.

The original Apple ad featured a variety of remarkable rebels, from Albert Einstein and Bob Dylan to Jim Hensen and Pablo Picasso.


If we were to make a similar ad for Catalysts, who would you put in the video?

The following is a second article written in response to the article above.  

The Work of a Catalyst

I'm still in a bit of shock over the popularity of yesterday's post, "Here's to the Catalysts."  Over 2000 views in 24 hours.  It's certainly not at the level of a cat video, Rihanna tweet, or Richard Branson post.  But it clearly struck a chord.  

Rebels knock down walls; catalysts build bridges. Rebels try to overthrow the status quo; catalysts seek to transform it.

It got me looking into what makes content go viral.  I was wondering if the rules that apply to cute babies, bucket challenges, and flash mobs also apply to my humble little post on business.  My hypothesis was "no."  I was wrong.

It turns out two of the key ingredients for viral content are

  1. Elicits a strong emotional response
  2. Aligns with one's identity and how one wants to be perceived by others

This suggests that the notion of being a catalyst was more than just interesting.  As one commenter said, "This rings so very true and encapsulates my 'Why'".  

Based on my own experience doing "catalytic" work, the emotion arises from the effort of moving across boundaries, overcoming fears, sustaining optimism, and navigating uncertainty.  This is usually done without recognition or appreciation.  As they say, failure is an orphan but success has many parents. 

The desire for identity seems to come from not having a single discipline to call home, not having an obvious tribe to which one is a member, and not having an easy label to identify oneself.  Catalysts are all about creating a sense of belonging for others, but often do not have that same sense themselves.

So if the moniker of Catalyst tapped into something, what exactly is the work of a Catalyst?  This will be something to explore over time, but we can start by looking at the word itself.

By definition, a catalyst is:

  • something that causes an important event to happen
  • a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without being used up in the process

It's remarkable how well these definitions apply to a business setting.

First, Catalysts are not about minor improvements.  They are out to make "important events happen."  Catalysts don't tweak; they transform.

Second, Catalysts are not about gradual change.  They "increase the rate of reaction" by making connections and accelerating results. Catalysts don't force; they flow. 

Third, Catalysts don't "get used up in the process."  This one is perhaps easier for a chemical agent than a change agent.  Most catalysts I know suffer a high rate of burnout.  Catalysts shouldn't sacrifice themselves in order to energize others. 

  • What do you see as the work of a Catalyst?  
  • Is it to transform? Accelerate? Create flow?
  • How do you keep from burning out and "being used up in the process"?