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3% Conference Long Reads Marketing

Nilofer Merchant on the power of “Onlyness”


By Kyle O'Brien, Creative Works Editor

October 28, 2016 | 7 min read

“Onlyness” isn’t a word we think of much. Come to think of it, it isn’t actually a word. But perhaps the more Nilofer Merchant uses her coined term, the more pertinent it would be to add it to our lexicon.

Merchant is a fellow at the Martin Prosperity Institute and the author of the upcoming book, Onlyness. In it she tells of a new way to triumph over the status quo. She is also giving the opening keynote Friday at the 3% Conference, playing off her theme: “Onlyness: Make Your Ideas Powerful Enough to Dent the World.”

Power in business has been vertical, tied to an organization, rank or influencers. Merchant sees the opportunity to make a difference as broadly horizontal. She says that at the intersection of power and opportunity lies “onlyness.” It’s a way for anyone and perhaps everyone to count and make a difference with ideas powerful enough to make a dent in the world.

In her keynote, Merchant will touch on the ideas she puts forth in the book, ideas she has built up in her 20-plus years helping grow businesses as varied as Fortune 500s and Silicon Valley startups. Her entrepreneurial and innovative ways – launching over 100 products, netting $18 billion in sales – have earned her much respect and a few nicknames, including the “Jane Bond of Innovation.” She is highly sought for her product strategy advice by companies like Logitech, Symantec, HP, Yahoo and others, and many see her as a visionary. Her other books include The Future is not Created, The Future is Co-Created and 11 Rules for Creating Value in the #SocialEra, and her popular blog, This Yes & Know, has been around since 2003.

The Bay Area resident was born in India and raised in Northern California, though she lived for a few years recently in Paris. She got the initial idea for “Onlyness” in 2011 when she was trying to articulate value creation and how it is changing in our economy.

“I had been working in company turnarounds for a long time. I kept noticing that the ways companies were thinking about strategy or advantage were entirely based on how big are we. That's a very old construct. I was sitting in a corporate boardroom and being vetted for a corporate board role. I realized these guys were saying things that were so 1980s, about competitive advantage kind of stuff, and I thought, ‘No, no, you're wrong.’ I actually came back to my desk to find the people who had written about why they're wrong so I could send it to them and advise them. I couldn't find anything,” said Merchant.

Her ideas became five blog posts in the Harvard Business Review articulating how value creation is different in modern times than the past.

“I ended up coining a term in order to get to this nugget, which was, ‘If value creation used to be about the means of production or capital, now it's about ideas. But where do ideas come from? They come from that spot in the world only you stand in, which is a function of your history and experience, visions and hopes.’ My argument was each of us has something that only each of us can offer, that when connected together using networks – not hierarchical organization constructs – that when connected together can now scale in a way that we've never had before. Now ideas born of an ‘only’ can scale and make a dent in the world. ‘Onlyness’ is that thesis,” she said.

“I would say all ideas go to die inside organizations — all the weird and wild ideas typically die. But in the network construct, weird and wild ideas actually have a shot, if you can find the other people who care about the same thing as you.”

Merchant researched roughly 300 stories to get to the 20 or so she included in the book. One she relayed was of a man in his 60s, the dean of a business school a year from retirement.

“He gets asked, ‘What are you going to do?’ He's known all these years that the reason that Enron and all these other major problems exist in business is we don't teach people how to have a moral compass, how to actually live out your values. It's one thing to know theoretically, it's another thing to have the muscle memory to know how to handle things. He ends up, as the dean of fellows, building a spirituality in business course at Santa Clara University,” she said.

Merchant went on to say that the weirdest and wildest ideas are sometimes scoffed at, yet those are the ones we should embrace more, especially since we can use neuroscience and multi-disciplinary research to back up the ideas that don’t fit neatly into traditional business modes, like compassion, meditation and spirituality.

She also sees a shift in how we connect, with social media being the obvious tool that enables us to find one another rather than being alone.

“If you're an ‘only’, if you're all alone in the world and you have a novel idea, you're more likely to give it up in order to belong to whatever tribe you sit with. Rosabeth Moss Kanter's research from the 1970s talked about that – she called it tokenism. She said if you're less than 15% of any group, your weirdness will die with you, because there's no way you can sacrifice belonging to chase a new idea. The reason social media actually creates the net change is you can now find the other people who care about the same thing as you relatively easily,” she stated, adding that during her research she found tons of people changing industries and changing their own sense of community and city in the process.

Merchant sees not only the practical value new ideas have on business, but also the economic impact.

“These wild ideas that are currently trapped inside people, because we don't know how to actually unleash that individual power and then connect to the power of many. That represents a huge amount of economic growth. Ideas drive our modern economy, but if the only ideas we accept are from the people we expect to see it from, then we're basically telling a really large swath of a group, saying, ‘No, no, no, we're not going to acknowledge you,’” said Merchant, who said that the people that are being told no are often young, women, people of color or older.

“This is where I think we can actually start to change what happens at the 3% Conference, so just tying it all to Kat (Gordon)'s work. Kat's got a really nice group of people already in the room who care about this notion of change. The question, then, is what are the constructs that allow you to scale together? That's what I'm going to put the emphasis of the talk on, which is, how do you actually isolate and act as one?”

Merchant says that each of us has the potential to be a change maker, owning the narrative power of our wild idea. But we must understand that we cannot do it alone. We need to use our allies to help change our industry and our work, and we must allow ourselves to unlock a level of capacity we may not have ever seen before.

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