The Case for Onlyness

Nilofer Merchant
Feb 20, 2018 · 7 min read

Not Everyone Will, But Anyone Can.

Nothing matters more than innovation; that something new that creates value.

It’s innovation that has allowed us to build today’s smartphones, and will let us build tomorrow’s teleportation pods. It’s innovation that solves centuries’ old problems, and lets us invent the future. It’s, of course, what makes money and grows our economy to benefit our lives & society.

Bedrock findings from innovation research is that, unlike invention or scientific discovery, innovation (a) emerges from “left-field” sources, and (b) by connections between previously separate elements. And yet, the very way we have constructed our societies and the organizations which populate them surely strangles the most fruitful forces of innovation. We are long overdue for an alternative conception, one in which ‘onlyness’ is central.

While, onlyness is not a word in the English dictionary, it should be.

Because at its simplest, it means “anyone’s — quite possibly everyone’s — ideas matter….” Based on that spot in the world ONLY one stands, and thru the connectedNESS offered by distributed networks, new ideas can count, connect, and scale to make a difference.

When I was describing the economic value of Onlyness to a colleague, I said this construct could be a way to open the doors to the ‘castle on the hill” to new ideas. I was arguing a bunch of people (women, the young, people of color) were currently crawling in the windows and sneaking in thru sidedoors, and tiptoeing around … hoping not to get kicked out. I wanted their ideas to be seen, despite the power and status of the person who brought those ideas. And, this friend … knowing my work and ideas… he shook his head, and said… actually… the castle is old and drafty and works only for those who established it, the men who have traditionally held power. Instead, he pointed out, what you seek is not incremental shifts but a radical one, to build a new village by the river, …so innovative, the castle-ites will join you there.

Maybe he’s right. After all…the secret to change, Socrates said, is not in fighting the old, but to put all one’s energy to building the new.

And there’s no doubt we need a new way to work.

We need the fuel of ideas to thrive in an ideas economy, yet the Economist recently ran an article arguing that “we’ve run out of ideas”. Nearly 60 percent of US workers and 80 percent worldwide do work that amounts to following orders, leaving them unable to contribute their ideas, apply their creativity, or use their own judgment. 61% of workers admit to “covering”, to hide their own passions and interests to fit into a corporate culture, thus leaving their own differentiated ideas at the door. All while 58% of work are actively disengaged at work.

Why?

These cumulative facts show that the collective workforce is designed to be commoditized, so workers can be easily substituted for one another. And let’s be clear: this is not a bad thing unto itself, because it optimizes the ways an innovation — say, the wheel — can generate growth.

The management model to do that, Taylorism, was created at the dawn of the 20th Century, when the vast majority of people’s ability to create value was tied to how fast they could do a pre-determined thing like… install an engine, or hood, or …wheels at a Ford manufacturing line. The management system had to do 3 things: break complex jobs down into simple ones; measure everything that workers do; and link pay to performance. Modern companies (Amazon, Uber, Walmart, etc) have found a way to update the construct for modern times; Call it Digital Taylorism. It still divides large goals into bits and pieces. It why job descriptions specifying and scoping what skills and experience and is the reason why “talent” is often credential-dependent; You are “talented” for a job when you have a degree to prove your skill, or if you’ve already done a similar job, so an organization can optimize productivity. It’s why modern management has planning cycles, to assess and track the productivity of work … instead of trusting people to do what is best. And it’s why rewards still optimize for the individual performance, rather than the more innovation-focused, collaborative, creative work that would connect disparate parts.

When Taylorism rules, companies and societies don’t see the modern-day innovation equivalents of the wheel. This costs us a lot of innovations. And, while a rival school of management (Mary Parker Follett, Peter Drucker, Tom Peters) have persuasively argued that workers are more productive if you treat them as human beings, it didn’t shift the fundamental framework of Taylorism, and the underlying premise that productivity is the key measure of growth. Despite their best efforts, not much has changed in management frameworks.

So, it’s no wonder that today’s managers default to Taylorism, despite its reductive nature: atomizing people instead of activating them, dehumanizing them while needing their very human creativity more than ever.

We need to adopt a framework that unlocks the fuel for the modern economy, that of new ideas.

And that’s why Onlyness, the framework and word, came to be. This shift addresses what fuel gets to count (ideas, based on that spot in the world ONLY they stand) and the engine used to connect seemingly wild ideas to others thru distributed networks (connectedNESS, a new way to work).

While one can argue whether this particular word is the best way to capture this reframe, or that it is (as yet) an incomplete management theory, but no one can argue it is directionally correct.

An example is the #metoo* phenomena. Individuals have been speaking about their distinct experiences within centralized, hierarchical, and patriarchal organizations for years, only to be silenced, dismissed, and isolated by HR and Legal. Now, those with shared purpose use distributed networks to gather together, in self-organizing connectedNESS, to make a new reality. It’s honoring each “only”, and connected by purpose, thus allowing an idea to scale. In the world dominated by Harvey Weinstein, you get blockbusters like Shakespeare In Love or the English Patient. Yet, it’s hard to measure what didn’t get made; How many potentially valuable perspectives were lost because the rigid power structures of who gets to count? One case study* could provide us a proxy. Franklin Leonard’s onlyness-centered model of the Black List opened up Hollywood’s elite doors to script writers outside the establishment and circumvented the powers that be. By asking people to (anonymously) submit scripts one loved, not ones that could be approved by the power-brokers in charge, the Blacklist helped “discover” scripts previously destined for the dustbin to be picked up and put into production. Moonlight, Juno, King’s Speech — scripts once dismissed, were able to create value. In 10 years, as of 2015, nearly 300 of the 1000 Black-Listed scripts have been produced, earning over $25 billion worldwide. They also received 223 Academy Award nominations, and won 43 Oscars. Four of the past six Best Picture winners, ten of the last fourteen screenwriting winners, and three of the 2014’s screenwriting nominees were Black List scripts. Most interestingly, for each of the first 8 years, the Black List’s top five scripts were submitted by outsiders — writers not living in Los Angeles nor represented in the industry. The Black List opened doors into the walled city, past the Weinstein-type gatekeepers so that new people and their ideas came in. This construct of networked individuals adding that which only they could showed up in economic and artistic results. Based on the qualitative research of 300 examples, the Black List outcomes are not coincidental; There is untapped capacity when new ideas count, and scale thru connectedness.

We’ve not run out of ideas, it’s that existing systems obscure or deny ideas that come from people who lack organizational heft, or don’t “fit in” to a particular profile. So, new ideas don’t have a chance. As organizations optimize for productivity, they are also optimized to eliminate the incredibly messy moments that birth innovations and new outcomes.

Each of us has something of value to offer, based on that spot in the world only one stands, and joined together in purpose, in connectedness. While not everyone will, anyone can. The fact that today so many people do not is not a sign that they lack capacity, but instead a sign that new scaffolding and structures need to be built to let them do so.

This is our biggest management problem, and also our greatest opportunity.

As we funnel in ideas that don’t come from expected places but nevertheless harbor the ideas, solutions and innovation that humanity most needs, we’ll make progress. 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. Of innovation. Of Growth. Of prosperity. A future that works for not just a few, but for many.

This post was originally printed in Smart Manager Magazine.

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Nilofer Merchant

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Innovation thesis: “Not everyone will, but anyone can”. Recovering tech exec (Apple, GoLive+) turned strategist (Rubicon), now 3x Author (recent: Onlyness)