Edge effects, in ecology, describe changes in population or community structures that occur at the boundary of two habitats, where rivers meet the ocean, for example, or meadows the forest. These changes usually foster diversity, creativity and abundance, making edge ecosystems the ecologist’s answer to ‘where are nature’s innovation labs’?

If organizations are also living systems, what might Janine Benyus’ (biologist and co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute) insight into edge-effects mean for large companies, for instance, who increasingly struggle with disruptive innovation, (millennial) employee engagement and environmental and social sustainability?

Misfits as Stranded Assets

Both Right Livelihood Award-winner Hunter Lovins’ Natural Capitalism and recovering Wall Steer-er John Fullerton’s Regenerative Capitalism point to some of the characteristics that make edge-ecosystems so innovative. Creative synergies and opportunities for reimagining are strongest where the bonds to the dominant pattern (organization’s ‘core’) are weakest.

Misfits are often the people best adapted to deal with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Tweet This Quote

This characterization applies to hordes of ‘misfits’ within many companies—the people who ask inconvenient questions, don’t fit any of central casting’s molds, and are therefore designated also-rans in the obedience games that rule most command-and-control hierarchies.

They are also, frequently, the people best adapted to dealing with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Their instinct for crossing boundaries leads them to be better silo-busters, unleashing great bursts of creative, cross-fertilized energies; it also enables them to collaborate better across traditional sector boundaries (business, government, NGOs, activists, etc.) in pursuit of shared goals and with shared principles. They think in rounds and feedback loops, not straight lines.

Misfits dig up and poke at deep-seated assumptions, often turning them into points of leverage for innovation that better responds to the winds of change. They are flexible in their thinking and ways of working, and all the living-on-the-edge (of organizational cultures) has only honed their edge in networking, storytelling and influencing without authority. They are thus oddly effective in implementing agendas they’re passionate about even without the resources and attention that flow to more official channels.

Misfits are oddly effective and resourceful in implementing agendas they’re passionate about; little budgets and big imaginations. Tweet This Quote

I should know because I am one such ‘misfit’. I have worked 11 years at a Fortune 50 company that has yet to figure out how best to deploy me. It’s as if there is general agreement that I am valuable but very little as to exactly how.

My story is one of many windows into widespread employee disengagement worldwide (only 13% of workers reported being engaged with work in Gallup’s 2014 142-country survey of the ‘State of the Global Workplace’), but also, simultaneously, the potential for the opposite. The lost productivity inherent in organizations’ failure to fully engage the people they pay (estimated at $450 billion annually, in the US alone, by Gallup) is also likely the biggest asset currently not on their balance-sheets.

Wicked Problems and Win-Win-Wins

The employee engagement deficit is doubly distressing given the state of the world and the central role of corporations in shaping it, for better or worse. Hovering over humanity’s future are the shadows of persistent problems, untreatable by even the most sophisticated applications of the same 20th century thinking that created them.

The tyranny of incrementalism threatens, as the giants of industry, stuck in ways of working grooved over decades, change only what they comfortably can, which is not much at all. Plastic bottles with less plastic and more fuel efficient cars (when they work like they’re supposed to!) but very little sustainable reimagining of convenience, packaging or mass transportation. As the French say, the more some things change, the more they stay the same.

According to a Gallup study, only 13% of employees worldwide report being engaged in their work. Tweet This Quote

A major problem with change is that it is happening everywhere, all at once, and accelerating. Simplistic solutions to complex problems risk unintended consequences that may put us deeper in the hole. In a world where answers are a mere click away, the ability to ask good questions is the need of the hour. Those who ask good questions will end up further upstream in their identification of problems-to-solve and will have better views on where to intervene in order to produce win-win-wins—designs that resolve multiple issues at once.

A good question to be asking these days is, what will it take to bridge the growing gulf between the existential purpose of big companies and millennial attitudes and views on work? The answer(s) to that may well also be the companies’ answers to challenges surrounding innovation, sustainability and future growth.

From Grind to Calling

The lost productivity when organizations fail to fully engage the people they pay is estimated at $450 billion annually in the U.S. alone. Tweet This Quote

The paradigm for how we think about work is shifting, from human resources (a notion reeking of the spirit of the world’s earliest corporations—colonial trading companies that trafficked in human cargo) to a new one of human relations/relationships; from organizations that see people as cogs in a machine to networks that see them as independent yet interconnected.

Strangely, the sentiments underlying this shift echo those that arose almost a century ago, when financial failures and austerity also pervaded the news and the national mood. As the millennials clamor for meaning and purpose, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural address from March 1933 plays in the background:

“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money, it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits.”

A moral—rather than strictly economic—take on why we work could be the biggest disruptor of all, rewiring capitalism from the inside out to serve societal well-being rather than Mammon. It will represent a quantum leap in how organizations measure productivity, from multiplying headcount by number of hours worked to asking what percentage of employees’ potential (‘full selves’) their jobs are actually tapping.

Those in charge of organizations dealing with disengagement will be tempted to suspect employees of absenteeism and goofing off. They would do better to suspect that at least some of them are busy tinkering away at the edges, reimagining the future of the company.

Entrepreneurs Inside

The future of work is already here, but not only is it unevenly distributed, it’s also not where you think it is.

In a recent LinkedIn post entitled ‘What is Entrepreneurship,’ Niko Canner cites Howard Stevenson: “Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled,” and underlines how this sometimes applies more to intrapreneurs within large organizations (staring at abject mismatches between their aims and resources under control) than the single-horned darlings of today’s venture capitalists, flush with easy money.

A moral, rather than strictly economic, take on why we work could be the biggest disruptor of all, rewiring capitalism from the inside out. Tweet This Quote

If misfits everywhere today are doing what they’re doing going against the grain, what could they do tomorrow if the organizational flows turned in their favor, pushing them to innovate downhill?

Luckily for them, the tides of organizational thinking (and behavior) are turning. There are more conversations about purpose and meaning and consciousness from boardrooms to cafeterias and at water-coolers, not as bolt-ons to the money-making mission, but as strategic clarifiers, rallying cries and powerful catalysts for innovation. There is a growing recognition even among the commanders that the way to navigate turbulence and build resilience in the face of rapid change is not to grip the controls more tightly, but to let go.

Leaderless, Leaderful

Empowered participation is going viral, one could say, manifesting everywhere and in everything from the sharing economy to the maker movement to consumer activism and citizen movements. Let us pick up the thread of what this means for business and companies wrestling with activists everywhere—from ‘misfits’ inside to citizens outside and entrepreneur disruptors and crusading policymakers (even shareholders).

It means, mostly, a simple yet profound shift in orientation, in business’ stance vis-à-vis the rest of the world: from isolation to interdependence; from competition to collaboration; from externalities to integrated bottom-lines; from antagonists to be ‘wrestled’ to co-conspirators in problem-solving. Everything else follows from this transformation of consciousness.

The Grand Challenges of this century—food, water, war, stress—can provoke panic and tear us apart, but they can also unite and bring broad, diverse coalitions together to work towards shared goals. Tweet This Quote

And in a perverse sort of way, Grand (seemingly insurmountable) Challenges help here—as much as they can provoke panic and tear society apart, they can also unite and cohere diverse interests around shared goals and principles of complementary, mutually beneficial action.

Look at one such response to the trend of hyper-urbanization: a wave of civic innovation—involving city governments, charismatic mayors, start-ups, enterprising community groups, NGOs, schools and colleges—fueled by broad and diverse coalitions brought together by the likes of Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, the Aspen Institute and Bloomberg Foundation.

Companies aspiring to survive and thrive in the long term (or even the near future) might do well to watch the space of an emerging innovation paradigm that is networked, boundary-less, built on radically different assumptions than the conventional wisdom, and above all, delivering results…now.

If misfits everywhere today are doing what they’re doing by going against the grain, what could they do tomorrow if the organizational flows turned in their favor? Tweet This Quote

If you believe (as you must, for all the information below is real) that…

  • it is possible to run a wildly successful, diversified company by letting adults be adults and manage themselves (Ricardo Semler of SEMCO, twice Brazilian Businessperson-of-the-Year: “the best way to manage is to get rid of the managers”)
  • innovation is not necessarily a product of generous funding and effective top-down management but depends on freedom, flexibility and participation (findings from Jugaad Innovation, a Cambridge Business School study of the amazing creativity, resourcefulness and ingenuity of the billions of global have-nots)
  • if we knew more about the passions and life-interests of those we worked with, we can, and will, come together to find common cause and take action (an ex-Microsoft-manager describes his service, Rally Team, as “e-Harmony for work and passion”—an algorithmic enabler of self-forming teams built by marrying employee passions to organizational challenges)
  • entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs can come together to take on grand challenges and come up with amazing ideas and ways to implement them (The Do SchoolUnreasonable Institute and Unreasonable Group are shining examples of experiences that function as innovation catalysts and accelerators, and feature heavy doses of cross-sector collaboration, mentorship and the magnetic pull of the impossible Big Hairy Audacious Goals of our times)

…how can you say no to a program of self-forming teams aided and abetted by the latest and greatest in networking platforms and tools, working to solve Grand Challenges on the cheap?

Genuine transformation starts by dealing with denial, with the realization that what got us here will not get us there. Tweet This Quote

Imagine a challenge to dramatically reduce industrial food waste, the 30-40% of production that is inefficiently translated to supply, by turning it into a resource. Imagine a few hundred ‘misfits’ from giant corporations in agri-business, food processing and waste management, as well as entrepreneurs equally passionate about food and food-systems. Imagine mentors like big-city mayors and ‘drop-in’s from leaders in food, ecology and sustainability. Out come ideas to turn peels and seeds into nutritious filler or organic fertilizer, compost into fuel, skins into packaging, and ugly fruit into beautiful rebukes to the kind of thinking that made waste a problem in the first place.

Genuine transformation starts by dealing with denial, with the realization that what got us here will not get us there. It’s time business shed its misconceptions of innovation as yet another activity to be made efficient, and embraced the edge (starting with the people formerly known as misfits).

For $1 million (15% to go towards a modest salary), I hereby sign up to set up a big tent for misfits, an imaginarium for Big Challenges, something that works along the lines described above.

Any takers?

Manoj Fenelon

Author Manoj Fenelon

Manoj Fenelon is a First Mover Fellow at the Aspen Institute’s Business & Society program, working to build cross-sector, multi-stakeholder consensus in favor of integrated water stewardship. He is also an intrapreneur at a Fortune 50 company, and to borrow the words of its CEO, an “internal activist,” advocating for the peaceful coexistence of profit-motives with social utility. He teaches introductory systems thinking and strategic design at the Pratt Institute, and the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York, and is a contributor to the just released book, Strategic Design Thinking: Innovation in Products, Services, Experiences and Beyond. He is also a frequent speaker at foresight and trends conferences. Manoj is Indian by birth, a New Yorker by residence, and a Nomad in spirit.

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