Monday, March 3, 2008

Living on the Edge

Late last year, I let an important anniversary slip by unnoticed - I had other stuff on my mind - but then good old BusinessWeek published an article on the same theme and it all flooded back. The anniversary I’m talking about was of an idea that has been very important in evolving how I think about innovation and creativity. A decade ago on 18 November 1997, at the 30th Anniversary Dinner of the Strategic Planning Society in London, I gave my first speech with the idea of Edge at its center. It was there I made the connection between innovation, creativity, risk and intuition with the Edge. I’m not sure what the Strategic Planning Society made of it, but for me it began to reflect my real life experience that the Edge matters, especially when I moved with my family to New Zealand. Within a few months of further work, Darwin had got into my head and has stayed there since. “Changes in species almost always occur first at the fringe of a species’ range, where the population is most sparse and where the orthodox ways of the center are weakest.” Again, New Zealand springs to mind and somehow brings us back to BusinessWeek and that article. Here’s John Hagel and his colleague John Seely Brown with their three guidelines for embracing the Edge.

1. Engage. If you’re going to get the benefits of the Edge you have to spend time there, not just pop in for a quick visit. Anything that starts with “E” is always good by me. Energy, Education, Emotion, Experience and, yes, Edge.

2. Sustain relationships on the Edge. The Johns and I are drifting apart at this stage. They see the world divided into ‘Executives’, presumably lodged in the center, and ‘Edge participants’, who bring value and relationships to the Executives like puppies used to bring newspapers. The focus is on the value of the center’s relationships out, not the Edge’s relationships in.

3. Bring the Edge to the core. And here we part company. The two Johns believe that you exploit the Edge. Set up outposts and then bring back any riches to revitalize the core. My instincts tell me to do something very different. Try to make the center more like the Edge. The danger to true Edge thinking is not alienation as the Johns suggest, it’s accommodation. The Edge matters because it takes different perspectives, works from different assumptions and lives different lives with different priorities. Best of all, they are location dependent. Ship them to the center and they do not survive. Trust me. You destroy what you are trying to leverage and any advantage rapidly leaches away.

Throughout the Saatchi & Saatchi Network, we protect our Edges like our children. We know that great ideas come from countries like Argentina and New Zealand, Thailand and Poland. It is because they live beyond the centers that they are valuable to us. To worry about them “becoming isolated and alienated from the core of the business” as the Johns do is to misunderstand the power of the Edge. Viva la difference.


Susan Plunkett said...

I submitted a comment to this yesterday and asked for it to be withdrawn. I am reposting from a slightly different position.

From my observation, some companies deal with ideas in, dare I say it, a collegiate fashion. Respectfully and with absolute equity in the sense of not associating the activity with power positions. In such companies a cleaner can appear in the board room and can be heard with as much respect and interest as the infrastructure manager. In these companies respect is afforded for on-the-ground experience and knowledge. A manager will not presume to intimately 'know' what-it-is to be cleaner even though they may supervise cleaners.

Some companies DO treat employees and their ideas like puppies bringing the paper. In these organisations ideas are rarely rewarded and basic employees see senior management increasing salary base and bonuses on themes and creative ideas often not of their own individual making. I have seen this in the tertiary sector and heard deans argue that ideas from staff become common property and that is it both churlish and selfish to try and claim any idea as individual 'property'. I don't agree with this stance for several reasons.

I have seen many companies SAY they are the former and often they are, at a level.

I have offered the point in other topics on this blog about independent assessment and the value of this transpiring from time to time. I read this current blog article and was reminded that any field tends to accept 'edge' from those they have already accepted within said field. True, there IS going to be cultural difference and, against this, certainly ideas emerging from Poland may be considered 'out there' in the US. We have radio humour (send-ups) in advertising in Australia that I am told simply does not happen in parts of the US. But, the people who are generally asked to create or have critical input on creation are STILL part of a field and in the international community, will tend to read the same information, attend the same conferences and so on as others in various countries. I'm not knocking this, simply pointing out the problematic about claiming 'edge' when you may not be stepping out from what you know and hearing the voice of others from outside.

In my mind, unless the latter happens, even from time to time, a business is in danger of playing conservatively and safely; no matter their espoused philosophical positions.

'Edge' is often about being uncomfortable - even for a moment. How open are you (I speak generically) about being uncomfortable in your business? We learn more from discomfort and error than we do from easy success. It's an issue worth considering in my view. Smugness in a business doesn't serve all aspects of review and growth.

John Hagel said...

I read with interest your comments on our column on the BusinessWeek website. I suspect we differ less than you might imagine.

Some of the perceived difference stems from the fact that we were addressing our post to senior executives of established companies and, from this perspective, you are right, we were not speaking to edge participants. Of course, I should also emphasize that there is no hard line dividing core and edge – it is a complex spectrum.

We have been very clear both in our broader writings and in our work with clients that the relationships between the core and the edge must be mutually beneficial. Executives in the core who are “takers” without giving anything in return to participants on the edge will soon find themselves shunned and isolated. The challenge for larger companies is to more effectively share their resources with edge participants in ways that help edge participants to get better faster. Companies that focus too much on protection of their valuable intellectual property will find that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to build sustaining relationships with the edge. To put it somewhat abstractly, focusing too much on protecting “stocks” of knowledge will prevent companies from participating effectively in “flows” of knowledge at the edge.
I worry a bit that your formulation of the third point implies a static view of the core and the edge. One of the differentiating elements of our current time is the speed with which the edge becomes the core and then confronts new edges. This is not a matter of choice, but a function of deep structures that are shaping and reshaping our business landscape at accelerating rates. I fear that your notion of protecting your edges like children comes across as a bit too patronizing. Those edges want to, and in many cases will, become the core in very short order and don’t need any protecting.

We were not talking about the edges “becoming isolated and alienated from the core of the business” but instead about emissaries from the core to the edge. Too often, these emissaries “go native” and lose the ability to bring learning back into the core of their enterprises. Without strong support from the senior executives in the core, these emissaries find it very difficult to effectively engage with edge participants.

For a bit more perspective on our views of the core and the edge, I would encourage your audience to seek out our most recent book, The Only Sustainable Edge.

Dino said...

Great clarification John.