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.