Tag Archives: IBM

Treasure Wild Ducks: The Flight of Innovation


Innovation, in the true sense, is something that is applied. For CIOs (CEOs), one best practice they can help drive within their organizations is what we refer to at IBM as “treasure your wild ducks.”  This means that we must embrace new ideas and nurture those who think differently.
                                                                     Dr. Kaiserworth, bold mine

I have a number of Wild Ducks in my team and have come across many in my career in and outside of IBM. They don’t always stay in formation, but that’s the fun of flying with them.

Theresa Alfonso, IBM Manager

The IBM notion of treasuring the wild duck intrigues and surfaces a key inquiry question—how is treasuring the wild duck and leading the innovation enterprise alike?   IBM has one purpose: “Be essential” and offers nine key practices.  One of those is “Treasure wild ducks.” As soon as I saw it on Tom Vines, IBM Human Resources Vice-President’s slide, I had to ask: What does that mean? Treasure wild ducks?  His response: Those are the people who are “way out there”, the innovators, and we highly value them as they are central to IBM’s purpose.

In education, there are many teachers and administrators that are trying new ways of teaching, new ways of organizing and new ways of innovating. Despite an ever increasing knowledge of how to lead innovation, educators still struggle. There are strong organizational cultural and psychological barriers that stop leaders and others from moving from “thinking” about innovation toward “doing” and “sustaining” innovation.   Leading the pursuit of innovative ways can be lonely and isolating. Perhaps the wisdom of treasuring the wild duck will help navigate the WHY?

Former IBM Chairman Thomas J. Watson, Jr. first told the story behind the IBM practice of treasuring wild ducks.  “In IBM we frequently refer to our need for ‘wild ducks.’ The moral is drawn from a story by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who told of a man who fed the wild ducks flying south in great flocks each fall. After a while some of the ducks no longer bothered to fly south; they wintered in Denmark on what he fed them.  Kierkegaard drew his point: you can make wild ducks tame, but you can never make tame ducks wild again. One might also add that the duck that is tamed will never fly anywhere anymore.” – IBM illustrates this principle applied in their organization (see video).

What does the wild duck and innovation in a school district have in common?  How is innovation approached within an organizational culture?  How do leaders build teams that are most effectively innovative?  How do organizations support and treasure innovators?

At IBM, group think is debunked and they try NOT to tame their wild ducks. Instead, they consciously treasure them.  Innovation in a school district depends on individuals who are open to ideas, conflict and who are part of teams in which vigorous debate, dissent and discomfort exist.  Innovators require a culture of openness – to argument and ideas, experts and outsiders, the young and the new.  Innovation requires leaders with courage to fly alone.

Like the wild duck, the importance of understanding and treasuring the individual innovator resonates with any person who has attempted organizational change and innovation.  Specifically, the role of “innovator as leader” is called on to evoke and sustain disruptive positive change.  The individual is often perceived as behaving in ways which challenges status quo; contradicts group think and risks failure and isolation.  The flight path is complicated as change is navigated with enough order and enough ambiguity to sustain innovative behaviour throughout the organization.  Being an innovator is messy business.

Cultivating innovation within an organization requires a thoughtful approach.  Lessons from the wild duck inform the way.  The development of support processes encouraging diversity of thought is paramount to organizational health and essential for individuals who risk being innovators and dare to fly alone.  The IBM practice to treasure wild ducks expresses the vitality so necessary to sustain the individual innovative spirit, and promises enrichment for others who follow the lead.

Wild ducks sometimes can make organizations uncomfortable. They create cognitive dissonance and interrupt the status quo.  Others may want to tame them.  But Dr. Thomas Watson notes, “One might also add that the duck who is tamed will never go anywhere any more. We are convinced that any business needs its wild ducks. And in IBM we try not to tame them.”

In classrooms, schools and districts, there are many educators charting a new path, creating innovation, and flying wild and free.

Do we treasure these wild ducks?

I am one of them.

Are you?

Blogger’s Note: This post was co-authored by Dr. Donna VanSant (@vansantd) and Elisa Carlson (@EMSCarlson). Thank you to IBM and Thomas Vine, Vice President, Human Resources, for the inspiration for this post.