July 10, 2017 by Speakers' Spotlight

Nilofer Merchant on the Power of “Onlyness”

Nilofer Merchant is a master at turning seemingly “wild” ideas into new realities, and showing the rest of us how we can, too. A bestselling author on innovation and collaboration, a TED mainstage speaker, and the recipient of the “Future Thinker Award” from Thinkers 50 (who also ranked her in the top 50 management thinkers in the world), Nilofer reveals new ways of connecting our ideas to the world, in an era when the potential to make a difference is wide-open. Nilofer’s upcoming book, The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World, will be published this September. It shows people how to create new ideas and get them heard, no matter where they sit in their organization. Nilofer talks about the concept of “Onlyness” and the book below:

In your books, your TED Talk, and your work as a Silicon Valley innovation expert for companies like Apple, you’ve studied how ideas originate and spread. For your new book, what did you discover about why some people can make an impact with their ideas and others can’t?

If you look at the TED stage or every major article about market wins, what do you notice first? It’s always a singular person who “crushed it.” You might not even notice this dominant narrative; it’s simply the way things are. The image this leaves is—if you’re not crushing it, you must not be trying hard enough. But by romanticizing the individual, it denies the power of us.

The best research says that if you have to pick between belonging and your ideas, belonging wins EVERY time. 61% of our society conforms rather than innovates. So, this seemingly “little thing” affects everything. With belonging comes the right to occupy space, to contribute your ideas. This explains why some people are able to make a difference and others seem to give up on their own ideas. Someone’s ability to contribute that which ONLY they can is not based on their boldness, or their status, but far more affected by how they belong and what connects them. Therein lies the power, and the book deconstructs that piece-by-piece so anyone can do it themselves.

What does your word “onlyness” mean and why has it become a greater source of power today than ever before?

No one doubts that ideas are central to this economy, that creativity is needed to solve the many problems at hand. Yet, far too often, people are told that being the “only one” makes their ideas marginal instead of meaningful. Onlyness is about reclaiming the idea of each person’s “only” as a strength. It braids together the two key elements. First:  You stand in a spot in the world that ONLY you stand in, a function of your history and experiences, visions, and hopes. This is the source of all distinct point of views, novel insights, and even groundbreaking ideas. Second: Now, you can scale that by shared connectedNESS, so the capacity to add value is widely dispersed. So in 2012, I coined this new thing, this new generativity… ONLYNESS. Through the power of onlyness, an individual conceives an idea, nurtures it with the help of a community, and makes that idea powerful enough to dent the world.

Onlyness captures an economic shift in how value is created. For example, mobile companies once handpicked three or five applications to be what used to be called “on deck.” Then, Apple changed the game. As a consumer, you had more choices. Companies went from controlling to co-creating value. Yet, the most fundamental and tectonic shift was what ideas could count, because this new “network effect” meant that original takes now had a chance to scale.

What are some examples of how our audience can use their onlyness to make an impact with their ideas in everyday situations at work, at home, or with a cause they believe in?

Nyatche Martha of Orange, NJ was twelve when she attended a Black Girls Code hackathon camp (a story in Chapter 2) and designed an app. The experience taught her that you can put anything that is in your head—something that you see needs to be created—and then make that something that anyone can use. Nyatche succinctly captures what happens when onlyness thrives: it moves us from being passive consumers to being active creators. At work, that means we speak up; at home, we become creative problem solvers; in our communities, we tap into our own passions to serve the world.

How can people be true to their ideas no matter how wild, but still address their need to belong? Don’t we have to make a tradeoff between individuality and conformity?

It’s the willingness and trust to jump without knowing exactly where and how you’ll land. Rejection, or the fear of it, is a key impediment to many people’s laying claim to their own ideas. A former professor of mine, André Delbecq (Chapter 3), shares how he went to an event where he had been practically worshipped, and people then treat him as a pariah, all because of a new (seemingly scandalous) domain he was pursuing to unite faith and business. His story reminds us if you make decisions based entirely on belonging, you have given the keys to your own life away.

But, just as André eventually does, you have to be willing to not belong—for awhile, at least—so that you can find the new, crucial allies, those cohorts who get your idea. It isn’t until you make that choice that you are able to signal to and seek out those who will want to share something meaningful with you. In society, being different can often be isolating. But in the 300 examples I studied, here’s the thing I noticed:  someone spots that thing that only they see, and in chasing it, they didn’t find themselves lonely, they found themselves deeply connected.

How do you hope your book will benefit both individuals and society at large?

There’s a massive (to the tune of 60+ %) underutilization of human capacity across the world. Undervaluing human capital is the equivalent of leaving money on the table, and important solutions un-invented. So, it affects our shared prosperity, our democracies, our very dignity. While many pundits and thinkers talk to the problems, onlyness offers each of us a specific solution, and a way to move forward.

How do you tap your own power of onlyness?

My friends will tell you I am often the one who helps them see beyond their title or job descriptions, history or experience, to name what they deeply care about. This is perhaps my onlyness, to notice someone’s capacity independent of all the apparatus we have (or don’t). And with this book, I’m signaling clearly that I believe there is an untapped and limitless capacity for us to benefit from. By writing this, I am signaling what I care about and hope to find more people who will join me on this journey to unlock the capacity of all of us. Maybe even all 7.5 billion of us.

How has your background in technology and innovation contributed to your understanding of the power of onlyness?

Onlyness is an idea whose time had become because of a tectonic change in what is driving next generation innovation. So, my “only”—in part, my tech and innovation background—was what let me notice it. I was sitting in on a Fortune 100 corporate board, listening to a board chairman talk about how they needed to act more in isolation defending their “competitive advantage” while I was watching nimble organizations outperform them on innovation by enabling ideas to come from anywhere. This irritation and desire to address those who kept thinking of their organization as having a perimeter was the genesis of my second book, published by Harvard.

Your book is for many audiences, but how can business leaders and managers benefit from it?

In the modern workplace, there is an emphasis on empowering individuals to take initiative, share ideas, and drive real impact. Yet, most teams are still trying to reward IQ and IP. So, what really needs to change? Leaders need to recruit, reward, and recognize the underpinnings of teams that enable them to takes risks and innovates together, a kind of CQ (collaborative quotient), so individuals share their best, most creative ideas. What efficiency was to the Industrial Era, relationships are to the Social Era. And what are relationships formed on? Trust. Crucially, trust allows individuals and companies to take risks that lead to better innovation, especially as teams become increasingly distributed. The faster technology moves, the more decentralized decision-making becomes—and trusting one’s teammates means a real difference for every aspect of business success.

 How can an individual’s flaws or shortcomings contribute to onlyness?

There’s a beauty in everything. There may even be a beauty in brokenness. Japanese potters use a technique called kintsukuroi (“golden mend”), a method of repair that involves a lacquer laced with gold, so that the site of the break is not hidden but made beautiful, the flaw becoming a main part of the object’s worth. It records an event in the life of an object, rather than the cause of its destruction. This is one profound power of onlyness, which should celebrate your own experiences, whether something happened to you or you made a mistake. Because denying a part of yourself is to deny your own strength, and thus limits the source of your creativity, ideas, and perspectives.

How do the concepts of onlyness and community coexist?

Community is central to onlyness, for it enables us to progress from being the “only one” to enlisting the strength and scale of a group. By figuring out what gives you meaning, you end up finding the others who care about the same thing. It’s as if there is a metallic thread— perhaps catching light, and thus your attention— that only you see, and, by pulling on it, you find yourself connected to a larger fabric of society. You finally find the way to be deeply attached to the world, not by fitting in but by standing by your own ideas.

What do you mean when you write “The capacity to act without assurance of success is an incredibly important factor”?

Most of us conceive of “knowing our purpose” or “getting ready to be a change-agent” as some introspective act of navel-gazing. But the opposite is actually true; it’s in acting that you figure out your own questions, find new allies that make it safe for you to explore, and even small active steps help get you ready to make a dent. Navel-gazing provides comfort, but it’s action that generates change, both in you, and in what you want to achieve.

What are some examples in today’s news where onlyness is at work or is needed?

Politics are getting stranger and stranger, with people polarized over identities of rural vs. urban, white vs. black, red vs. blue, and so on. These stereotypical group narratives add nothing of value to the conversation, other than keeping us separated. Onlyness offers a different path to unity—not by demographics but by purpose; it is a way to connect with people who have the same hopes and dreams but may not share a common history or experiences. This shift keeps the focus on new ideas—not on competing personal identities—so it can grow mightier. Most people want to simply come together to create solutions for things like economic prosperity, healthcare, and education instead of having stale fights on what divides us. Onlyness offers a different and more productive framework to engage people to care.

Why do we need this book’s message now more than ever?

There are so many crises in the world today: figuring out how to slow down climate change without collapsing economies, addressing underemployment as machines take on more work, resolving the tensions between antagonistic cultures, and of course, preparing future generations to deal with a world that requires more math and science skills. Yet, no individual country, or organization, or highly gifted person knows how to solve any of these things independently. But we, joined together in a shared purpose—in onlyness—could figure out a way to solve these critical issues. Onlyness is a way to organize around ideas and become shapers of our shared destiny.

What are some examples of ordinary individuals you studied, and what they did to create extraordinary impact?

When Kimberly Bryant (Chapter 2) landed a job as an engineer for DuPont, she was elated and eager to work with interesting peers. But once there, her manager introduced her as a “ two-fer,” a rare acquisition: a black woman in tech. This made Kim deeply uncomfortable because it focused on her otherness, not what made her uniquely qualified. Then, when her daughter Kai started learning to code at school, Kim was sad yet not surprised that the predominantly male and white school culture was equally patronizing to Kai. Kim gathered a bunch of old computers, her daughter’s friends and their moms, and started a program called Black Girls Code. There will be 1.4 million new coding jobs by 2020, and Kim wanted to make sure that her daughter and girls like her would be part of that future. Kim naming the program BLACK girls code was a lesson in reclaiming that which made her seem marginal to others as meaningful to her. What started as a weekend project, BGC is now in 7 cities and has already trained 10,000 girls. When your life has meaningful impact, it’s because you have defined that meaning.

At 23, Alex Hillman (Chapter 4) was living in Philadelphia, working as a web-developer. Lacking a community of people equally geeky and creative, he stayed home most nights, lonely, as he ate takeout hunched over his computer. Alex was about to move out to California, thinking maybe his fellow hackers, makers, and geeks were all out there, when a particular job offer fell through. And it occurred to him that he loved his no-name Philly. So, in different workshops and coffee shops around the city, he began to seek out his people, one by one. First, they started gathering informally every Friday, then more often until they built their own co-working facility in Philly called Indy Hall. Collectively, they have the kind of creative work colleagues they wanted without having to go to a big firm, or leave their hometown. This then created an entrepreneurial hub for the city. What looked, at first, personal, actually served many, and benefitted an entire city’s economy.

Tereza Nemessanyi (Chapter 4) was a former corporate type with no entrepreneurial experience. She was a new mom when she started following the blog of venture capitalist Fred Wilson. After noticing that many of the most interesting ideas actually arose in the comments section, Tereza began to leave her own. It led her to greater clarity about what her contribution could be, and she started a blog, which after three years led to her launching a company. As she began attending conferences to promote it, she found people already knew of her from her comments and were interested in talking with her. She left her own start-up and got a job at Microsoft, now helping the company to build strategic relationships with other entrepreneurs, which includes many women like her former self. Tereza could have looked at her lack of networks, in comparison to others, and thought she didn’t belong. But she started with what she distinctly had—what only she could contribute—and found that her onlyness was enough.

Zach Wahls (Chapter 2) was born in Iowa City. Growing up he was like most other boys he knew: he loved sports, dirt, cars, and the Boy Scouts. But slowly, he figured out that something about him was different. Zach was one of the first babies born to two women using IVF, or in-vitro fertilization. When he explained at Boy Scouts that he had two moms, he was told that this violated policies; that this was wrong. Ultimately Zach—just a teenager—connected with other Scouts who were facing similar discrimination, and together, they were able to convince the national organization to change its policies to become more inclusive. What connected Zach to the world wasn’t his heritage but his vision for what was possible, the distinction between vertical identity (what we’re born into) and horizontal identity (what we care about). Onlyness integrates the two: celebrating what we’re born into is how the story starts, and the things we care about is how the story advances.

Shortly after becoming unemployed, twentysomething Franklin Leonard (Chapter 5) spent a weekend binge-watching movies and had an epiphany that he wanted to work in Hollywood. So, off he went, despite not having the Rolodex or the experience to get anything more than an entry-level job. After his first year, he secretly sent an email to about 75 people he had met to ask them what scripts they loved that were not getting their due. He rolled up their input, and posted their responses By changing the question from “Can it make money?” to “What do you most love?,” Franklin caused an entire industry to reconsider how scripts were picked to become films, and movies destined for the dustbin got a shot. By 2015 he had issued a Black List for ten years, with staggering results both artistically and financially. Nearly three hundred of the one thousand Black List scripts have been produced, earning over $25 billion worldwide. They’ve received 223 Academy Award nominations and won 43 Oscars. Four of the past six Best Picture winners, ten of the last 14 screenwriting winners, and three of 2014’s screenwriting nominees were Black List scripts. Most interestingly, for each of the first eight years, the Black List’s top five scripts were submitted by “outsiders”— writers not living in Los Angeles. The Black List was opening doors in the walled city, and new people and their ideas were coming in.

What are the first steps anyone in our audience can take to start tapping their power of onlyness tomorrow?

When people ask why I used the phrase “dent the world,” I could explain my history at Apple and how that phrase is just part of my Silicon Valley lingo. But the real reason is that the word dent always struck me as key. A picture of copper comes to mind, with a tiny little instrument being used on it, and dent-by-dent, being shaped into something useful. If each of us sees ourselves as a shaper of destiny, we can dent the world to start including us.

Figuring out your onlyness means considering your particular history, experiences, insights, and ideas—even, and maybe especially, the things you’ve been told don’t matter or make you “less than.” What do you care about? What dent do you wish to make in the world? And how will your onlyness help you to shape that dent? Then find people around you who have the same passion, as Kim Bryant did with Black Girls Code, and Zach Wahls did in his fight for equality in the Boy Scouts, and mobilize that network to make your dent a reality.

More than anything else, the first step is going to be how we conceive of ourselves. Once we do that, we give our new ideas free rein to charge ahead and pull us into the future. All progress is born of new ideas. They let us reimagine who we are, and how we might be. Ideas rupture the status quo and incubate the future. A future that works not just for the few, but for many.