I’ve been writing about a very different approach to transformation for over a decade, including here. My writing so far has focused on the imperative for institutions to adopt this approach to transformation in rapidly changing times. In this post, I’ll make the case that it’s also an imperative for us to pursue as individuals.
Scaling the edge
We’re in the early stages of a Big Shift that will transform our global economy and society. This Big Shift will require a fundamental transformation of all our institutions – companies, governments, universities, non-profits, etc. But, having been involved with institutional transformation efforts for decades, my key message to all institutional leaders is to never, ever under-estimate the power of the immune system and antibodies that exist in all large, traditional institutions. At the slightest indication of change, the immune system mobilizes to crush those efforts and defend the existing approaches that have led to success in the past.
This is the reason that the conventional approaches to transformation – I call them the “top down, big bang” approaches – have an extremely high failure rate. So, is there an alternative?
I have become a strong proponent of an alternative approach that I call “scaling the edge.” Rather than trying to transform the core of the existing institution, this approach focuses on driving change on the “edge” of the institution. What do I mean by edge?
It’s a part of the institution today that has relatively modest resources and impact but, if we understand the long-term forces that are re-shaping the relevant markets and arenas for the institution, that edge has the potential to scale rapidly to the point where it will become the new core of the institution.
The commitment is to scale the edge as rapidly as possible and to drive transformation on the edge, rather than trying to get the core to transform. As the edge scales, it will pull more and more of the people and resources from the core out to the edge. In a world of accelerating change, edges can scale at a pace that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago. Before we know it, the edge has scaled to the point where it has become the new core of the institution, not just a diversification effort or growth initiative.
In scaling the edge, the key is to minimize the likelihood that the immune system in the core will mobilize to try to block the scaling edge initiative. In prior research, I’ve identified 12 design principles for scaling edge initiatives in institutions that can help to keep the immune system at bay.
Making it personal
But is scaling the edge only for institutions? I’ve come to believe that it can also provide some helpful guidance for us as individuals, as we confront the same imperative for transformation that our institutions face.
We have our own immune system that we should never under-estimate. The immune system operates at two levels. First, there are the beliefs we have about what is required for success and happiness. Those beliefs come from many sources. Some of the beliefs are shaped by our experiences to date, but many of the beliefs come from our families, communities and broader societies that we live in. From an early age, we’ve been taught that certain approaches lead to success and happiness and encouraged to follow those approaches. Regardless of how those beliefs came to embraced, we understandably tend to resist efforts to shift to alternative approaches.
But, to really understand the source of our personal immune system, we need to go one level deeper – we need to move beyond mindset to heartset. Our actions are shaped by our emotions, not just our beliefs.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the dominant emotion that more and more of us are experiencing is fear. Fear is surfacing for many reasons, but a key underlying driver of this emotion is the mounting performance pressure that more and more of us are experiencing. In this context, the emotion of fear is very understandable.
At the same time, though, we need to accept that that fear is a key driver of our personal immune system. When we’re driven by fear, we have a tendency to shrink our time horizons and become more and more risk averse. We want to hold on to the beliefs and approaches that we currently have, rather than venturing out into uncharted territories.
So, what do we do? How do we respond to the imperative to transform while keeping our immune system at bay?
Passion of the explorer
For some of us, the lucky few, the answer is relatively easy – pursue your passion of the explorer. Some of us have found and cultivated our passion of the explorer that motivates us to move forward in spite of our fear. This passion of the explorer generates excitement within us when we’re confronted by new and unexpected challenges because those challenges will help us to have more and more impact in the domain that we have chosen. I should caution here that I am talking about a very specific form of passion that emerged from my research and that I have written about extensively, including here and here.
But, here’s the challenge. Very few of us have been fortunate enough to find and cultivate our passion of the explorer. There are many reasons for this, but a key one is that we live and work in societies and institutions that are deeply suspect of passion. Passionate people are risk-takers, they ask too many questions and they too often deviate from the scripts they’ve been assigned – they’re viewed as trouble-makers in institutions and societies that value conformity and risk avoidance. In the face of this suspicion of passion, many of us have simply given up our search for the passion of the explorer and done our best to “fit in.”
So, in the absence of this passion, how do we overcome the immune system deep within each of us and pursue our transformation as individuals so that we can thrive in a rapidly changing society?
Finding an edge that will unleash your passion
Try scaling the edge. Rather than transforming ourselves overnight, find an edge that can help drive our transformation. How do we do that?
We need to look ahead and look around to scan the horizon for opportunities that have the potential to drive very significant impact. There are two parts to this quest. First, we need to gather enough evidence to convince us that these are opportunities that could create significant impact. This is about evolving our beliefs so that we can begin to focus on opportunities that are really big enough to drive our personal transformation.
But then we also need to reflect on whether that potential for impact really inspires and excites us – we need to move beyond beliefs to emotions. The edges that will motivate us to drive some challenging personal transformation must be exciting enough that they will encourage us to move beyond our comfort zone and continually venture out into territories that can seem very intimidating.
The edge needs to be a seedbed for cultivating the passion of the explorer. As we look at potential edges to scale in our personal lives, we need to look within and see what emotions are being triggered. We may not feel intense excitement at the outset, but we need to at least feel the potential for that excitement to blossom as we move forward. And, if we feel that excitement start to wane as we begin to confront unexpected challenges, we need to be prepared to shift to a different edge to drive our personal transformation efforts.
Finding our edge is about selecting an edge that has the potential to draw out the passion of the explorer. We need to unleash the emotions that will help us to move forward in spite of our fear.
Scaling our edge then involves selecting actions that will help us to quickly demonstrate significant impact in the edge domain with modest effort. If the early actions require significant effort, we’re much more likely to draw out the immune system within us, driven by fear of failure. On the other hand, if the early actions yield significant impact, we’re much more likely to gain more confidence and become even more excited about the opportunity to have even more impact as we move forward.
Before we know it, our actions on our chosen edge will begin to expand in scope and we’ll find more and more of our time and attention consumed by the opportunity to scale the edge.
A personal example of scaling the edge
I have scaled an edge many times in my life. As one example, I was a partner with McKinsey & Company, helping to open their Silicon Valley office and working with clients to evolve their strategies in a world that was increasingly being shaped by digital computing. In the early 1990’s, I saw the emergence of the Internet as a promising new digital platform and I became very excited by its potential to help connect people and create significant value for the economy and society. That became my new edge.
I spent time exploring the start-ups that were pioneering Internet businesses. I then did a consulting project with a major telecom company and convinced them that there was a significant investment opportunity in building out Internet-related infrastructure. That motivated me to launch an Electronic Commerce Practice for McKinsey in 1993, at a time when most of my partners had never even heard of the Internet. It became the most rapidly growing practice in the firm globally. I was then motivated to write two books exploring the business opportunities created by the Internet and they became best-sellers. The rest, as they say, is history.
What got me started on this edge was the inspiring opportunity created by a new generation of technology that had the potential to become a very significant business. But what kept me going was the deep excitement that I experienced as I pursued a set of more and more ambitious initiatives that had growing impact in this domain. I scaled the edge to the point where it became the new core of my life.
We are in a world that demands personal transformation, as well as institutional and social transformation. As we address this imperative, we need to acknowledge and overcome the immune system that resides within all of us and actively resists change. Scaling the edge can provide us with a launchpad to drive that transformation and discover our passion of the explorer that will drive us to continue to evolve throughout our lives. Once we discover that passion of the explorer, we will turn mounting performance pressure into exponentially expanding opportunity.