Managing Opposites: How to Win with Rule-Followers AND Risk-Takers

The almost-certainly-apocryphal story goes something like this…

In captivity, when a trained walrus does a trick and gets a fish, he’ll then repeat the same trick over and over in order to get another fish each time.

In contrast, if a trained seal does a trick and is rewarded with a fish, he’ll then try new tricks to explore different possible rewards; maybe a flip will get him two fish instead of one. Maybe walking on his flippers will score even more.

As I say, almost certainly not true in the context of the animal kingdom.

And yet, there’s something in there that rings true, right?

A Tale of Two Teams

Years ago, I worked with two separate teams who regularly collaborated with each other. Team One aimed to deliver exactly what was expected, nothing more or less. Their benchmark for success with the Client was completely binary: ‘Yes, this is what we asked for’ or ‘No, this is not what we asked for.’ And as such, any change in the creative process – big or small, good or bad – was a threat to that win. The goal? Stasis. Don’t rock the boat. Get the check mark.

Team Two stood in stark contrast to Team One. They embraced the agreed-upon goal, but were willing to risk complete failure for the chance to overdeliver. To shock and awe. To bend the letter of the law – if needed – in order to hew to the spirit of the law. Team Two’s scenario for failure is was fixed and clear as Team One’s, BUT the possible upside – the win – was limitless.

Crossing The Streams

Having led teams of creatives for the last 20+ years, I can definitively say there are inherent risks and benefits with each team’s ethos. And combining them? Having them work in tandem? Challenging, to say the least. So, here are a few takeaways I’ve discovered in managing opposites…

  • There’s a time and place for both rule-followers and risk-takers, just as the walrus and the seal both have irreplaceable roles in the food chain. That said…
  • Determine which approach is most often useful to your unique team. If you’re an accounting firm, you probably don’t need a roster full of mavericks – though one may be useful once in a while.
  • If you’re in a very competitive market category and/or in a creative field, don’t limit your chances for the Big Win by shutting down your visionaries, loud-mouthed though they (we) might be. Conversely, don’t be afraid to remind them they can only bend the rules if the rules are in place to begin with.
  • In managing opposites, both tribes can learn to work together IF communication remains Constant, Candid, and Collaborative. Choose to run the risk of over-communicating. When two groups speak different languages, you may find that ‘over’ is actually only ‘just enough.’
  • Combining these disparate groups is a process, so be patient – with yourself and with the ‘other side’ – and extend a spirit of grace whenever and wherever possible.

Walruses and seals.

Rule-followers and risk-takers

There’s room for all of us.

– Matthew Porter


Matthew Porter writes about decoding success, creative leadership, marketing, and productivity.

If you enjoyed this, please subscribe, comment, and share!

PS: If you’re into learning more about what makes the people around you tick, check out the Enneagram.  It’s been around forever, but I’ve only recently learned about it.  Goes a long way in helping you identify with others’ needs and outlooks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to top