Nilofer Merchant: 30% Weird is a Good Target

By Scott Kirsner |  January 24, 2018

“Have any of you ever been told that your ideas are too weird, too wild, or too much? Anyone who has ever said that to you is wrong. It is our wild and disruptive ideas that create the future…”

That’s how author and former Silicon Valley tech executive Nilofer Merchant began a recent talk. (You can watch the complete presentation, from the annual Inbound marketing conference, below.)

Merchant’s latest book is all about weird and wild ideas — its title is “The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World.”

We sat down with Merchant to talk about why corporate cultures can be so hostile to ideas that are a bit off-kilter — or come from people who don’t act like or look like authoritative experts in their field. The conversation began by talking about how large companies can be nimble and open to employee ideas if everyone is told they have to fit in and act like everyone else.

“The question is, can we change the culture enough so that weirdness starts to be celebrated?” Merchant said. But hiring just one or two people with a different experience set — call them “the weird ones” — isn’t enough. “Based on all the research I’ve found, the magic number looks to be about 30 percent. [You need about] 30 percent weird people in order to start to impact the larger culture.” So what would Merchant do to get to that magic number?

If I’m the head of HR, I would go, “OK, what is the culture we actually want here? If it’s taking more risks, how would I show that? How would I bring in the next person, and the next person, and the next person,” and basically say to each other, “We’re going to change this [company] one person at a time.”

The aesthetic [design of the workplace] can be important. …If we are a place that takes risks, we probably don’t have grey carpeting. If we are a place that says, “I trust you to do your work,” then we can have toys around, because you can understand that sometimes you need a mental break and you can go play ping-pong with your colleagues.

We might set up a walking path around the building, so that we recognize creativity comes in all sorts of different ways — not just by staring at a computer screen. We’d have childcare, so you didn’t have to sit there and stress about getting home at a set time. You do things to bring out the very best in people.

Working with Steve Jobs at Apple

What most people don’t know about Jobs is that he really loved dissension. He loved to have a debate. He loved to thrash things out. He worked really hard, by the way, to craft a mirage of the heroic, iconic person. [But] his actual work preferences and how he built an amazing company was entirely about collaborative work. About building a team that was willing to fight clean, and fight where they needed to fight, and actually have the debate and the discussion and the tension resolution.

He never allowed an issue to go unaddressed. If it was an issue, he would bring it to the table and he’d get the team to actually thrash on it. That’s [should be] so much more celebrated, and I wish it was more known.

…My first meeting with Steve was when he had come back [as CEO, in 1997.] All the business units had to present basically what was up. The particular division I was a part of was the server business unit.

I had been responsible for growing that business from $2 million to $180 million. I was responsible for this channel program that was successful within this business unit. I was the little golden child at that moment, because it had grown.

They said, “You stand there. You present it.” I was probably like 26. I was young and I was like, “I’ve never done it, but OK. Let’s go,” and [Steve] walks in. I’ll never forget this moment. We’re sitting [in] some big corporate boardroom. My slides are up.

…If you don’t pass this test, you flunk the class. You’re out. Everyone knows this is what the meeting is. Before I even say a word, he sees my slides, which say something like “Channel Management” or “Apple Server Channel Management” or something.

He says, “F*** the channel. We don’t need a f***ing channel.” Mind you, the only businesses happening right now is through the channel.

I was thinking, “This guy is crazy.”[At the time, there were no Apple Stores and very little e-commerce revenue.] Every place where the channel wasn’t strong, the margins were declining at these exponential rates.

It seemed to a lot of us that what he was doing was only keeping the things that were there before he’d [left the company in 1985.]

Everyone was running for the door, because all the good people were like, “I’m out of here.”

I’m thinking, “If $180 million of this business at 50 percent margin is coming from the channel, maybe don’t kill the channel.” No analyst would ever say that’s the right call, and he’s sitting there controversially saying to me, “I don’t care how successful that channel is. We’re going to go build a direct model.”

It made no sense to me, and yet what he was doing was learning how to hold the two things in tension — how do you manage today, and then how do you make that leapfrog to tomorrow?

At the time, I couldn’t see it. As soon as you put a little bit of time and distance between that moment, you’re like, “Oh, how do you hold both things as true?” He could do that. Most of us don’t do that as leaders, in our innovation world.

I literally went back to my desk and typed an email to a guy who had offered me a job. …I was like, “That opportunity sounds so interesting. Let’s talk about it again.”

I went and joined a little Web startup, GoLive, that Adobe bought. I enjoyed growing it. I grew it from basically zero. [Merchant later served as a consultant to Adobe.]

Opening Up to Employee Ideas at Adobe

[At Adobe, they fought the shift from packaged, software to the cloud] every inch of the way.

…I was one of the people who said, “You should bundle all the products together.” Shantanu [Narayen], who was then COO, said, “I don’t think we can do it. I don’t think our consumers will pay.”

I offered to do a pilot. I said, “How about we just run it in some country and test it?” My thesis was, I think [Adobe’s] consumers are price-agnostic. There is a bunch of elasticity in here, because they don’t have an alternative. So why not get them to buy not just Illustrator, or not just Photoshop, but everything, and basically drive more of that integration and get more share? It was also an attempt to get Macromedia out of the business.

Shantanu was like, “No, no, no.” I was like, “How about we just run a pilot, because data talks?” We ran it, and it was called spumoni in Italy. Multiple flavors together.

…We basically just said, “What if we could just make it slightly easier in all the integration points? Every user has the same set of things they’re doing, if they’re doing graphic design. Why don’t we think about all the places where they’re doing six clicks and we could make it one?”

It was so natural for them, but [the company] fought it so much, and then they’re like, “Oh, it does work.” One of the things about even the best companies [is that they] can’t hear what else is possible, because they’ve been doing things the same way [they’ve always] been doing it.

How do we just constantly sit there and go, “OK, crazy ideas all count. What are the 12 different experiments we could run?”

At one point, in fact, Shantanu had gotten a little bubble of revenue show up. It was unexpected, so we called it a windfall. One of the conversations was that it should be like peanut butter, spread across the company. I was like, “Why don’t we run an innovation contest and see if we can actually spur a whole new set of ideas that we haven’t seen yet?” He’s like, “Oh, OK. We’ll give that a shot.”

The criteria was…you had to form a team, and then you had to pitch us an idea [about how we should use some of the money.]

We expected product ideas, but what we got was, “If we can get everyone a Fitbit, it would lower our health insurance cost by three million dollars.” They were people who were like, “I want health in my life more, so how could I get Adobe to drive health across the company?”

One of them was, “I want healthier food in the cafeteria,” so we found all of the other people who cared about the healthy food in the cafeteria on some…Internet channel [and] basically said, “Who else is interested in this?”

They figured out how to reinvent the cafeteria food. All of the ideas were so crazy and out of the blue. [And the teams] could do most of them without the money.

…I remember the whole executive team going, “Wow, those were surprising.” It was simply because they hadn’t asked the question before: “What wild idea do you have?”

As soon as they invited people to come play, there was this marketplace of ideas that was always there but we hadn’t invited them in.

“Have any of you ever been told that your ideas are too weird, too wild, or too much? Anyone who has ever said that to you is wrong. It is our wild and disruptive ideas that create the future…” 

Nilofer Merchant

Reward teams for working together — rather than isolating individuals

We espouse this notion that ideas can and should and need to come from everywhere, because, of course, we know the research. We know that the research says that 90-some percent of breakthrough ideas come from left field. That’s research done by Karim Lakhani, out of Harvard, one of the best open innovation people there is.

We know the data, but then what we do is we use our own human biases and we don’t change any of the ways in which we design [systems to gather] those ideas. I was fascinated by one of the case studies I started pursuing a couple years back, was this organization called Foldit.

They were doing this really obscure science project, where they were trying to figure out how proteins fold, trying to create essentially a periodic table for how the proteins respond, because if we can understand how they fold and therefore mis-fold, we could solve things like Alzheimer’s.

It turns out every team that was doing this research around the world was recreating the core foundation of how the proteins folded and mis-folded. …We could really accelerate major things like Alzheimer’s progress, if we could just get this periodic table created.

They started with the crowdsourcing program, and they did three things that were super interesting. One is that they said the first step was, “We’re going to get people from all around the world.” [Another] was the big step of taking away the jargon. Jargon turns out to be the biggest filter we use. We use it in meetings, we use it in industries, to say, “Well if you don’t know our jargon, then you must not know enough. Stay away, stay out.”

Yet jargon actually is just an impediment to contributing your creativity, so they said, “What if we took the jargon out and made it so that anyone could participate, even if they aren’t credentialed?” The first step of credentialing might actually not be necessary.

[Then] they hid schools and they hid gender [of the participants. It] turned out that…if you hid the signals that distort, people could go “Oh, that person’s actually doing well.” Just by looking at the work.

The third piece they did was saying, “We’re going to reward you for helping each other, instead of rewarding you for being the singularly best person. We’re basically going to find a way for you guys to share credit.”

…Which is the opposite of how we run most work. We mostly try to say, “Can I isolate what Scott did today?” Because that would be performance management, [to] isolate [what one person is doing.]

Ideas are almost always a team sport. It’s almost always a process of, “How do I make your ideas better, and you make my ideas better, and we figure out how to get that ball down the field?” We are rewarding the wrong thing, so they just found a way to go, “Let’s just reward the team, and they can share amongst themselves how to split that prize.”

Those three shifts, to me, represent what any organization could be doing and acting on. [You could] get rid of the jargon, so that you stop thinking, “I need an MBA with certain kinds of brand experience, or a certain [number] of years of experience.”

The second one is, how do we take out the factors that the human condition has conditioned us for thousands of years to say, “We’re going to look for leaders that fit a certain profile.” How do you just turn that dial down?

The Air Sandwich

In my first book, I [talk about] the air sandwich. In an air sandwich, the top of the organization tells the bottom what to do. The bottom of the organization has a set of experiences that don’t match the top.

Any time you run strategy as separate from execution, you cause the air sandwich to happen. What I would do is build teams that are a combination of the strategy people and the execution people, and then you close that air sandwich.

That was what my first book, “The New How,” was about. It seems so practical, but how do you get [those] people in the room? They co-create the idea [and] they know to execute it.