One of my favorite quotes is by George Bernard Shaw. The quote concerns itself with progress:
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him… The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself, therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
The problem with this formulation is that few people enjoy being unreasonable, and many of those that we know who are unreasonable aren’t being unreasonable to advance knowledge or innovation. Many of the unreasonable people in your life are simply cranks.
But let’s not miss out on the concept of unreasonableness, or, as the title of the post suggests, edginess. Innovation relies on the edge, and on edginess, for survival. Here’s why.
People who are comfortable with the status quo tend to resist change and the introduction of “new” things. Most corporate cultures are far more comfortable sustaining existing products and services, which are predictable and well-known, over the introduction of new, risky and uncertain products and services. In that regard, only people who are willing to create and sustain change, who are comfortable in the face of uncertainty and are willing to push against the corporate culture will sustain innovation. And these people often seem a bit “edgy” to the rest of the organization. They zig when others zag. They have different perspectives, ones that many people try to tamp down. Yet if everyone in the organization had the same perspectives and same comfort level with existing products, what new thing would get done? Perhaps we should say that, paraphrasing Shaw, that “all innovation depends on the unreasonable man (or woman).”
OK, if innovation relies on an edgy, unreasonable person with the organization, but most organizations are staffed primarily with people who are comfortable sustaining the “status quo” products and services, where does the edgy person get their inspiration? Usually, from external sources. This means that for an “edgy” or unreasonable innovator to thrive in most organizations, they must be closer to the “Edge” of the business than the center, for two reasons. First, the closer to the “core” of the business an idea or person is, the more difficult it is to change anything. Whatever is at the “heart” of a business, right or wrong, is harder to change than issues, values or products that are more peripheral. Second, information, trends and signals only penetrate a corporate culture so far. Corporate culture acts like a barrier to external signals, filtering and weakening messages from the outside. The closer one is to the center of the business, the less interesting information penetrates, and the more it is garbled when it arrives. To get the best, most untainted information, the innovator must have access to the “edge” of the business – that is, have ready, unfiltered access to information that preferably he or she gathered and analyzed themselves.
Finally, innovation relies on edges of corporations and even industries, because many disruptive innovations happen not at the core of a business or industry, but at the edge where two businesses or industries intersect. It is on these extreme peripheries where two or more capabilities or needs intersect that really interesting and disruptive innovation happens – again, at the edge. Yet, more and more many firms are restricting travel, limiting interaction with partners and third parties. We know that interesting innovation happens at the intersection of technologies, markets and geographies, but increasingly these intersections happen by accident. There’s no one on the “edge” of the business, and even fewer people who explore the “edge” of the industry or technology.
Further, edgy people aren’t appreciated, and the more important a person is, the more likely we are to find them at the center of the business, insulated from external signals and rarely engaged at the edge of the business, much less at the edge of the industry or technology.
Corporate structures and cultures have it all wrong. Increasingly, your best people need to be on the periphery, identifying the best ideas and creating linkages and intersections with other industries and technologies. Your best people need to exist on the edge of your business, rather than in the center of your business.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.