Machiavelli knew how difficult it is to make changes that matter. He wrote:
“There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the initiator has the enmity of all those who would profit by the preservation of the old… and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new.”
In the face of this resistance to change, we often seek to win the backing of mainstream supporters, those in positions of power and influence. But, perhaps these days we can increase our chances for successful change by looking to the margins, not the mainstream.
Our economic and social environments are more uncertain and turbulent, business and political decisions are increasingly complex and intractable, and there are signs that power is shifting in both business and the wider community.
Social commentators, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, writing for the Harvard Business Review, argue that the growing tension and balancing act between the forces of ‘old power’ and ‘new power’ will be a key defining feature of business and society in coming years. Old power is enabled by what people or organisations own, know or control that no one else does. New power is about being open, participatory and peer-driven, with the goal not to hoard, but to channel, power and knowledge.
Managing change in this climate means looking to ‘the edge’ for answers. It is time for fresh and unusual perspectives and combining new diverse sources of knowledge and ideas in different ways.
Learning from the edge means deliberately hearing new voices, entertaining unfamiliar or uncomfortable ideas, spanning and making sense of opposing approaches, and shaping innovative solutions from adversarial positions.
US innovation authors and researchers, John Seely Brown and John Hagel 111, have marshalled the evidence on the importance of learning from the ‘edge’. They advance the view that in a rapidly changing world, the edge increasingly reshapes the centre. If you don’t go to the edge, you won’t see what’s coming, both opportunities and threats.
The ‘edge’ is valuable for change because:
- New ideas can be introduced at peripheries, either from necessity or from lack of ‘lock-in’ to the status quo.
- Boundaries and borderlines are fertile ground for innovation, as they are where different people, experiences, beliefs and needs encounter each other and sometimes collide, opening up previously unimagined answers.
But, being edgy is also discomforting. Most of us have a natural tendency to avoid edges. From an early age, we are warned to stay away from edges – you can fall over them or they can cut you.
The antidote to the danger of edges lies in creating ‘safety nets’ of people and connections that multiply knowledge flows and insights, share learning and result in actions that make a difference.
Lessons from the edge, rather than mainstream, conventional wisdom, may be a tool to address the in-built Machiavellian difficulties and dangers of changing the status quo into a new order.
Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, Understanding ‘New Power’, Harvard Business Review, December 2014.
John Hagel 111 and John Seely Brown, Edge Perspectives, see http://www.edgeperspectives.com