Challenging the status quo in business by Nilofer Merchant

Nicknamed “the Jane Bond of Innovation” Nilofer Merchant talks to David Woods about her concept of Onlyness and how, in the social era, the power in business will shift from companies and institutions to networks of connected individuals 

What does it mean to be empowered? What, in fact, is power? And are the people who have the most power in business, the right people to have it?

Nilofer Merchant’s work is set to answer these questions and while her research is groundbreaking, what makes it unique, challenging and game-changing, is that she’s asking people around the world for their stories.

Merchant identified a notable shift in the notion of value creation in the social era. In her 2013 book 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era, she argues two points. The first is that value creation has shifted away from organizations to individuals; that “connected people can now do what once only large organizations could”.

The second point is that advantage in this social era comes from the ability to tap into the varied talents latent in each and every one of us.

Her next step is to find real people who are doing this in reality, tapping into this talent, and to tell their stories.

She explains: “There are so many challenges in the world from saving our environment, to addressing patriarchy, to keeping the web open and free, to reforming education to be relevant for the 21st century, reinventing healthcare, and so on,” she says. “The stories of people around the world who have set their minds on addressing these seemingly impossible challenges are the ones I’m chasing. Most of us long to make a dent in the universe, to leave a world that’s different and better than the one we were born into.

“We need to unite in a common cause and march in the same direction.”

Merchant is a lecturer at Stanford University and a professor of management at Santa Clare University. She has gone from working in admin to being a CEO and a board member of a NASDAQ-traded company during her 20-year career, attracting monikers such as “the Jane Bond of Innovation” along the way for her ability to guide Fortune 500 and start- up companies through impossible odds. Companies she has worked for include Apple (with Steve Jobs) and Autodesk, as well as start-ups in the early days of the internet. Merchant is one of the few people who can say she has fought a competitive battle against Microsoft (for Symantec’s Anti-Virus $2.1B annual business) and won.

Dialogue caught up with her in December 2014, when she was working on her forthcoming book, due to be published in 2016.

She explains: “Onlyness: Make Your Ideas Powerful Enough to Dent the World will show how anyone can make a real dent in the world without the backing of powerful people or belonging to an organization… By tapping into their deepest passions, enlisting allies, and galvanizing others to act as one. While it references social technologies, the point is not the tools but how people get things done.”

So Merchant has taken the brave step of writing a blog in tandem with the book, where she is putting the ideas she intends to discuss to her followers. She plans to translate these into case studies and real life examples for the book.

It’s a risky and unusual strategy for any author, not least one with a reputation to uphold, but this quirky and original style of leadership thinking has become Merchant’s trademark.

She delves deeper: “Short of being some singular giant like Steve Jobs, or Nelson Mandela, the only way until recently, that we could pursue this goal consciously and systematically has been by joining an institution – a company, the military, the government, or the Church – and rising in its ranks until we acquired sufficient power to bend it to our purposes. The only problem: by the time we get the power, assuming we get it at all, we’ve probably lost the fire. Or bought into the status quo.

“The internet has eliminated many barriers of geography, cost, and time. Today, connected people can do what, once, only large organizations could do. Networks are the new companies, the new way of getting things done. While it hasn’t changed all power or given you a blank permission slip of access to get things done, it’s certainly made more things possible, to anyone.

This is much more than an exciting or trendy management concept, according to Merchant. She warns that Onlyness will not be a “nice to have” in the modern workplace, it will be a business imperative if our economies are to survive. Her concept of Onlyness refers to each person’s unique position and perspective in the world; each of us is standing in a spot that no one else occupies, she points out, and this individuality can be exploited. (See box, page 58)

“Businesses are failing because the people running them don’t think differently,” she tells Dialogue. “They think in terms of money, organization and capital. But if they were to think about the seven billion people in the world and the latent talent that is there – this could be a real changer.

“If someone is in charge of a business, why would they want things to change? Why would they give up their position? They own the house. But what if that house were a bad piece of property? It’s time to build a bigger house and to invite more people in. This is a tectonic shift – creating value by giving power to new people.

“The ‘old guard’ won’t be in power forever. An old school way of thinking is to fight for everything you’ve got. To me this resembles the old view of the Divine Right of Kings. Kings believed they had the right to autocratic power until revolutions came across the world and overruled them. I believe the same will happen in business. In the modern Divine Right of Business Leaders, the power will shift away from the elite and bring with it massive change.”

The reformations in Europe starting in 1517, or the global age of revolution from 1789, were major tectonic shifts that diminished the control that religion had over the world and the power autocratic monarchs exercised over their subjects. These revolutions and reformations culminated in the industrial revolution of the 19th century, which arguably created the blueprint for our modern workplaces.

Together, these revolutions and reformations changed the face of modern societies, and historians writing about them often describe the reformer Martin Luther as the “spark in a powder keg” that led to the reformation in 1517.

Merchant agrees that we are operating in a “21st century powder keg” and a new spark is needed to ignite the change management for which “thinkers” consistently call,. “The time for navalgazing is over,” she asserts. “We have to act out passions before we can truly believe in them. Our histories, experiences, visions and hopes pull the strings that lead to our adventures.

“And like giving birth to a baby, the ideas we have are born of us – but we have to allow them to go out into the world. Academics are awarded for their stature, but people have grown to want to become more important as individuals than the ideas they have. Really, the important thing should be getting an idea over the line.

“We can all lead,” she muses. “A study from The University of Illinois asked if leaders are born or made and discovered that only 30% of what makes a leader is genetic and the remaining 70% comes from life experience. The door is starting to open. Authority can come from an idea rather than an individual, but it does matter who is at the table in a creative, knowledge economy. Not everyone is a creative source.”

Individuals who are afraid to embrace their Onlyness could risk being left behind when the forecast change does occur.

Merchant explains: “If you don’t embrace your Onlyness, you will be alone. Those who try too hard to ‘fit in’ will end up lonely. The secret to Onlyness is to stop trying to fit in and stand up and be brave. Onlyness is a compulsion that will light up the world.”

The important underlying premise of Onlyness is that it is part of a group that’s not ‘listed’. For instance, LGBT people, women, or people of colour are told what they care about in terms of society’s norms. Onlyness allows these people – or any people – to stand in their own strength. In the past, women have had to sacrifice their femininity in order to get ahead in the workplace. But now things that are seen as ‘feminine’ traits, such as empathy, are seen as an asset.

“It took me 13 years to complete my education and I tend not to mention my school. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school and it seemed that my education didn’t count as much as that of some others. This transformed my point of view. But education is an ‘entrance’. I’ve met people who have been told they are not smart – whom I would not have met had I not gone to the school I did. These are people who have had to work harder and not give up.”

Closing our conversation with a call to Dialogue readers, Merchant concludes: “If you are interested in how the least powerful among us can earn a seat at the table, join in. I’m hoping you can help me to find the people, to learn from them, and with any luck, tell their stories well so we can all learn, together. If we’re going to navigate and thrive in these modern times, the social era, we’re going to have to find the trailblazers among us.”

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Join Dialogue and Nilofer Merchant in bringing Onlyness to the world. Visit www.nilofermerchant.com for more information. Nilofer Merchant is bestselling author on innovation and collaboration, a TED speaker, and a business leader with 20 years of experience. She has made a career out of asking people to act differently. Merchant has personally launched more than 100 products that have netted $18 billion.