5 Questions With Behance's Scott Belsky: Understanding Workplace "Free Radicals"

Scott Belsky says the "Free Radicals" of the business world are crafting the future. Here's what you need to know about these workers.

I recently had the good fortune of attending a lively and thought-provoking talk by Scott Belsky, founder of Behance and vice president of Products-Community at Adobe.

During the presentation, based on his bestselling book Making Ideas Happen, Belsky dispensed a wealth of smart and practical career tips, such as: 

  • Share your ideas liberally.
  • Make your boss make decisions.
  • Fight apathy ruthlessly.
  • Maintain a sacred space for digital disconnection.

But Belsky also devoted significant time to describing a new (and formidable) group of workers he's been calling "Free Radicals." These individuals are highly capable and creative, difficult to pin down and laser-focused on making an enduring impact. Oh, and they have absolutely no love for the status quo.

I followed up with Belsky to get more insights into these intriguing, forward-looking Free Radicals:

1. For those who are unfamiliar or in need of a refresher, what's your quick definition of a Free Radical?

The "Free Radicals" are a new type of 21st-century professional; I call them Free Radicals because they take their careers into their own hands and put the world to work for them. The commoditization of once-pricey resources like business management services, which are now in the cloud, and everything open-source is the wind at their backs. Free Radicals are resilient, self-reliant and extremely potent.

2. Since you first coined the term Free Radicals a couple years ago, do you feel this group has grown in numbers as well as influence?


3. You noted in a recent talk that Free Radicals are more easily identified by their attitudes and aspirations than their age. So, Free Radical and Millennial are not necessarily synonymous, right?

Correct. The Free Radicals are more of a psychographic than a demographic. They work in small companies as well as large businesses. Free Radicals are emerging as extremely capable leaders across industries. 

In large corporations, I find Free Radicals questioning the norms and building a reputation as honest and action-oriented individuals. They're trading antiquated and opaque information-sharing processes for the ease and transparency of Google Apps; they're leveraging social media to gain market insights faster – and more cheaply ­– than the research department; and they're always pushing for more freedom and progressive work practices that value meaningful creation over meaningless face time.

4. What steps can employers take to attract and retain these more self-reliant professionals?

For starters, get out of their way. Seriously, make sure that they don't become encumbered by ancient business practices, bureaucracy and old-boy networks. Be sure to promote them when they deserve it. And keep them in stretch roles that have a steep learning curve.

5. You noted that Free Radicals have little tolerance for bureaucracy. Going into 2014, are there any common but archaic workplace processes or standard operating procedures you'd encourage creative leaders to abandon – or at least adapt?

Question how time is spent. Question meetings that happen "just because it's Monday." Work with a bias towards action.