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:
“Talk to yourself as a friend, not an enemy. And remember, you cannot change anything unless you first see your own self as powerful enough to act. The way we talk of ourselves and to ourselves grants power – narrative power — to what happens next.” — Nilofer Merchant
Why do companies and individuals get disrupted? Why can some individuals change organizations and transform businesses with their ideas, regardless of title, experience or status? Ray Wang and I invite business leaders and trailblazers from Fortune 1,000 companies, founders and CEOs of startups, venture capitalists and bestselling authors so that we identify common characteristics and approaches of highly accomplished business and innovation professionals. To learn more about the power of influence, and the science of driving meaningful change, Ray and I invited a world renowned innovation and business transformation expert who worked with Steve Jobs and now helps Fortune 500 companies and startups with strategy, go-to-market and growth initiatives to our weekly show DisrupTV.
Nilofer Merchant is an innovation expert. She helps grow businesses — from Fortune 500s to web startups — for 20 years by turning seemingly “wild” ideas into new realities and showing the rest of us how we can too. She has done so through her books, her top ranked TED talk, and her accomplishments at Fortune 500 companies and startups. Merchant was awarded the Future Thinker Award from Thinkers50, which ranks the world’s leading business thinkers and which also named her the #1 person most likely to influence the future of management in both theory and practice.
Merchant began her career in business 25 years ago as an administrative assistant, and quickly rose to division leader, to CEO to board member of a NASDAQ-traded company gathering monikers such as the “Jane Bond of Innovation” along the way for her ability to guide organizations through impossible odds. She has personally launched more than 100 products, netting $18B in sales and has held executive positions at everywhere from Fortune 500 companies like Apple to startups.
The author of two previous books on how organizations can better employ new ideas, Merchant’s latest, THE POWER OF ONLYNESS: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World , shares her insider expertise with general readers to reveal new ways of connecting our ideas to the world around us in an era when the potential to make a difference is no longer bound by social status.
Here are the key takeaways of our conversation with Nilofer Merchant on the power of onlyness:
The power of finding your onlyness – So Why are some individuals able to make sizable impact with their ideas, regardless of their power or status? They know how to claim their “onlyness”—what innovation expert Nilofer Merchant has named, “that spot in the world only you stand in, a function of your distinct history and experiences, visions and hopes.”
“Onlyness is that thing that only that one individual can bring to a situation. It includes the journey and passions of each human. Onlyness is fundamentally about honoring each person: first as we view ourselves and second as we are valued. Each of us is standing in a spot that no one else occupies. That unique point of view is born of our accumulated experience, perspective, and vision. “ — Nilofer Merchant
A sense of belonging is key to advocating ideas – According to Merchant, onlyness is an economic shift that allows real original ideas to enter the market place in a brand new way. In her book, Merchant talked about the power of onlyness but didn’t quite answer the question of ‘how can someone find their onlyness?’. Since the book, Merchant explored and qualitatively researched individuals that had put an ‘dent in the universe’ by finding their onlyness. Based on her research, Merchant discovered that a sense of belonging is key to advocacy of ideas. Belonging to a group is key to advocacy. We don’t give up on our selves unless we don’t already belong to a group. This changes the instruction set – instead of saying ‘just do it’ we must change the narrative to ‘find your tribe and then use your network to amplify your ideas’.
“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.” — Nilofer Merchant
To find our community, we have clearly signal who we are – Merchant discussed examples of people who found their onlyness were those who clearly and honestly showed others who they really were. Signalling our interests and seeking like-minded people helps us find our onlyness and the courage to be advocates of our ideas, core beliefs and guiding principles. To find your onlyness, Merchant asks the question: what color is my weird?
“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.” — Nilofer Merchant
A good sponsor finds your onlyness, not your otherness – Merchant warns us to not work with sponsors that try to shove you into a box. Find sponsors who see the real you. Find sponsors that notice the things that matters to you.
“The world will give you feedback on what works and what doesn’t. But first, you must do the work, relentlessly being yourself. If you wait for someone else to first give you permission to pursue a new direction, then you are, in effect, seeking permission to be yourself.” — Nilofer Merchant
Specificity leads to actions and real outcomes – Merchant talks about both success and failure in her book. Her advice to achieve success is to be concise and clear with the problems statement, the stakeholders involved and the necessary actions to drive measurable outcomes. Focus, accelerates.
The big shift in onlyness is focus less on about control, experience and pedigree, and more about experimentation, collaboration and co-creation of value. Who here wants to play? Merchant asks companies to find people with passion and grit, willing to experiment and play.
“Figuring out your onlyness means considering your particular history, experiences, insights, and ideas— even, 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? All progress is born of new ideas. They let us re-imagine 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.” — Nilofer Merchant
Belonging to a community, means being willing to be changed by the community – Merchant advises us to ask ourselves what we are willing to add to the community, what is the shared framework, and the shared purpose? Answering these questions will guide and show us the opportunity to find ways to collaborate together, stay flexible, co-create and make forward progress.
Merchant is a lifelong student, connecting with many, always willing to teach and be taught. Here is one of my favorite stories, where Merchant learned about growth from Steve Jobs. She remind us that the best gift that you can give yourself is the permission to learn from many. I encourage you to watch the entire video conversation with Nilofer Merchant to learn more about the power of onlyness and how it can shape your future as a successful entrepreneur and innovator.