build your own edge

Every one of the major challenges facing us is complex. But our organizations are not designed for complexity. Our workplace training does not factor in complexity. While not all of our problems are complex, the simpler issues are being dealt with, especially through software and automation. Understanding complexity means working in it together and using our collective intelligence.

One example of using the collective wisdom of an organization is to map a path forward. Robert Paterson worked with US public radio, NPR, in 2005 to help determine how to adapt to the industry-wide changes wrought by social media. Six years later, Rob noted this report from The New York Times, “Amid all that creative destruction, there was a one large traditional news organization that added audience, reporters and revenue. That unlikely juggernaut was NPR.”

Part of the secret was to prepare the existing culture by embracing pathfinders from the new culture.

“So if you want to be successful, please think of hiring someone who knows the other native people out there and the new culture. Who is a native of the world that you aspire to go to. Who is less of a guide than a trusted friend. Who you can talk to quietly in the evening around the fire and have her hear you out. Someone who risks as much as you do on the journey – or even more than you. Someone who is safe and who helps you feel safe as you take risks.” – Robert Paterson

Organizations cannot learn how to learn faster by continuing with their traditional methods. They need to get people to marinate in complex systems. It takes more than a course, a report, a retreat, or white paper. It takes time, and space. This space must be created, and guarded against intrusions from the existing system. Xerox created its famous PARC ‘skunk works’ in order to foster innovation. It was separate from the main company.

‘PARC, or Palo Alto Research Center, Inc., was founded in 1971 as a research arm of the Xerox Corporation. Its critical contributions to computer science included development of the laser printer, the Ethernet, a variation of ARPANET (a predecessor of the Internet); various email delivery systems; the nucleus of the modern personal computer – featuring a monitor with graphical user interface, or GUI (pronounced “gooey”), and the first modern version of Stanford Research Institute’s Douglas Engelbart’s invention: the computer “mouse”.’ – HighTechHistory

Diversity of opinions and ideas gives any organization more resilience to deal with change and more potential for innovation. An organization’s networked creative surplus can be enabled by blocking the noise of every day ‘busyness’. While this may not be available to everyone, there needs to be a diverse group that has the time and space to try new things, have deep conversations, reflect, and learn by doing. Organizations of any size today need to become a Xerox-PARC, or have access to one. Of course, management will still have to pay some attention to what may sound like crazy ideas emanating from this new edge.

Innovation comes from the edge, almost never from the centre. It is time to start creating the edge of the organization now. As organizations become more technologically networked, they also face skilled, motivated and intelligent workers who can now see systemic dysfunctions. But those who talk about these problems are often branded as rebels. Pitting rebels against the incumbent power-holders is detrimental to organizational learning. Instead, rebels should be allowed to move to the edge. With some additional help from native pathfinders, organizations can then learn to solve their own problems.

Change management then has to be seen as a way of working, not a separate process, and not an event. On the edges the answers will not be clear, but they will be less obscured than in the centre. A new partnership is needed, between current management on the inside, workers on the edges, and others living beyond the organizational edges. This can start by creating a trusted space away from the centre, funding it, and letting people start to work and learn anew. It’s like giving birth to a child, and will take time and a lot of nurturing. It’s also a bit of a leap of faith.

Image: @gapingvoid

7 thoughts on “build your own edge”

  1. Hi Harold, in your article above, it says

    “those who talk about these problems are often branded as rebels. Pitting rebels against the incumbent power-holders is detrimental to organizational learning. Instead, rebels should be allowed to move to the edge.” I’m wondering how the innovations that are developed at the “edge” are successfully applied throughout (and bought into by) the larger organization (the one with the old, stagnant habits, policies, rules, culture, etc) and its complex systems? (for context, I work for a government organization)

    • That’s the big challenge, Jill. It takes leadership that is willing to take some chances. Perhaps they are more comfortable funding start-ups than implementing change within. In any case, they should be propagating new ideas for the future. If you look at RIM, it is obvious that Blackberry is no longer a major player in the smartphone market. However, the company has planted many new seeds that may create new companies even bigger than RIM was. However, my particular audience for this post was government departments, who have an obligation to remain relevant to the citizenry they serve.

  2. Thanks Harold – great article, and reminds me of what Seth Godin calls Edgecraft – where he advises that if you want to be successful, go right to the edge of a problem of solution.

    It’s an area that is often not embraced or taught by organizations – I often hear of managers going on the (very traditional) ILM or MBA courses… but rarely on courses that are designed to help teams to be more innovative or understand the concepts of disruption etc.

    Thanks for sharing.

    All the best,


  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Harold. I like your idea of being a rebel and starting anew – indeed when it comes to learning and inventing new solutions going outside the scheme is a must.


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