Nilofer Merchant speaks at the TEDxUniversityofNevada
Christopher Holloman
By Ellen McGirt
March 11, 2019

Do yourself a favor and put on your do-not-disturb, pour yourself a cup of ambition, and watch this just-posted TEDx talk from author Nilofer Merchant.

In a venue that’s designed to celebrate original ideas, she starts by bringing unwelcome news. “Given the value of original ideas—to our lives, our work, & our economy—it might surprise you, even shock you to learn…well over half and likely as many as 70% of them are ignored, silenced, or never heard from in the first place.”

Her real focus is power, and how power shapes, or fails to shape ideas, an essential take on inclusion.

Nilofer sees meritocracy as a myth, a self-informing loop that helps explain the homogeny of executive ranks and venture-backed ideas, and the necessity of movements like #TimesUp. “Some ideas are heard, and some are not,” she says.

From her talk:

So that means… When you have status, your idea gets early encouragement. Your boss, your friends, whatever, hear you and respond, “That’s SO original!” They back you, shape it, and do the work to turn that idea into a new reality. Those who are valued, get to create value. Which leads to more results, respect, and more status. Loop de loop, up and up they go.

The reverse is also true. Those with low power get ignored, or shot down early. Even if the same words are used, “That’s …so… original.” the tone says they didn’t actually hear you.

We’re not seeing all ideas…it’s not the idea that’s deemed unworthy; It’s the person bringing that idea who’s deemed unworthy of being heard.

Nilofer, a former tech CEO, has been researching power, innovation, and inclusion for years; in her latest book Onlyness: Make Your Ideas Wild Enough to Dent The World, she explores the unique strength that we all bring to our lives, communities, and work. “Each of us—each of you—stands in a spot in the world ONLY you stand in. From that spot – your history and experience, visions and hopes – you have a distinct perspective only you have. It’s that place of power distinctly one’s own, the genesis of new ideas. Compared to no one.”

But to get your ideas into the marketplace, you’ll need more than yourself.

“Tapping the power of Onlyness is not done by standing out in a crowd; but by about finding your crowd,” she says. “Finding your people is how you incubate an original idea and how you grow it to be powerful enough to dent the world.”

RaceAhead asked Nilofer to dig into some of the points she raised in her talk by sharing two tips you can put into practice today:

RA: What is one simple thing a leader (especially one with some sort of D&I responsibility) can do today to make it easier for the under-heard voices around them?

N: Let me share how I’d apply it to meeting design.

Setting the meeting agenda is something every leader does. And brainstorming is often a part of that agenda. Most meetings are designed so people are expected to chime in, but leaders could set the agenda to say everyone will be asked to add their ideas and then make sure that happens. (Not starting at 50-minute mark of a 60-minute meeting but with enough runway).

Once those ideas are added, you could ask at least two follow-up questions, so it gets some airtime. You could also design your meetings to ask everyone to write their ideas out on post its and then process those together. That guarantees all the ideas get put on the table and at least heard out. (And good for introverts, too.)

RA: What is one simple thing a person can do today to change their crowd, or as you say, “who they’re with?”

N: In the most practical language, I say stop thinking of “who you’re with” as those you report to or work alongside, and go find people who care about the same things as you.

Here’s a recent example. An executive woman had been brought in to a software product company to add her UX (user design) experience. She reported into engineering. She could not, despite her knowledge and influence skills, get her engineering colleagues to consider her point of view – despite repeated attempts. My advice: Go build momentum about design, so she could stop being the “only” voice asking the questions.

I told her to go find anyone, anywhere in the company who wants to learn about how design can shape the future of the company, and then either teach them what she knows or invite experts in to share their ideas. (A lunch-n-learn series works well for this.) It’s one way you can shape “who you’re with,” and stop focusing on the opposition.

When you try and try to get the people in power to notice you, like she did, it’s like knocking on the door of a castle that doesn’t want to let you in. Instead, collect the allies you need to build your own village, one that will be so much better than that drafty old castle, that the castleites will come out to join you.

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