Thought Catalysts: Nilofer Merchant on Finding Solutions

August 24, 2016 Fast Company, Speakers' Spotlight

There are leaders and then there are followers. Generally the idea is to be the former. 

But perhaps it's worth a shot to look at this phrase the other way around. Maybe to be a leader, it's worth being a follower. 

The people who lead the way with awesome ideas and unique talents did so by acquiring knowledge and applying it in new and interesting ways. We all need to learn stuff to lead stuff. And those who do it best inspire others to act. 

They are Thought Catalysts. Here they are as told by the movers and shakers from Speakers' Spotlight


The Innovation Era is moving beyond Information Technology to empower us with Idea Technology. Can you talk a little about this?

Today, what creates value is, to put it simply, you. Each of us is standing on a spot that no one else stands on. From this place, which I call onlyness, you have fresh perspectives and new ideas. When you are connected to others—other employees, other customers, other influencers—with Idea Technology, that idea becomes powerful enough to dent the world. How different is that, really? You can now do what once only a few large organizations could.

What has been one of your greatest challenges while working to reset achievable goals for companies both large and small?

Too many organizations that I’ve advised or studied hold on to “today” with a vise grip and hope that somehow, when the time comes, they’ll be ready. But, the truth is more this: You’re going to need to manage the present while you invent the future. Really. You’re going to have to unlearn some of the ways you’ve always done things. Unlearn what you already know to be true because things are changing. And then learn not just a new “what,” but a new “how” to work—so you can shift rapidly from disruption opportunity to opportunity.

As work becomes increasingly mobile, how do you stay productive on the go?

Productivity is a measure of how well to achieve a goal, so you’ve got to get really clear on what you most want and why. One “crazy idea” my husband and I had was to raise our child with a global context. So, we recently moved from Silicon Valley to Paris. The network easily connected me to local people, and so professionally, I get to learn how entrepreneurship and innovation work here, through a new lens. It’s not necessarily efficient, but it is productive when you look at the goal.

What’s the next mission for the “Jane Bond of Innovation”?

Onlyness. Power has long been vertical, so it was tied to your organization, or rank, or top-dog influence in the world. But the opportunity to make a difference is broadly horizontal. At that intersection, between power and opportunity, lies Onlyness—a way for anyone, quite possibly everyone, to count and make a difference. My first nonbusiness book, due out from Viking in 2016, is a compilation of real-life stories about how people make their ideas powerful enough to dent the world.

This piece originally appeared in Fast Company.


Nilofer Merchant is a best-selling author and expert on collaboration and innovation. To read more of her posts, visit her page on Speakers' Spotlight. To have Nilofer speak at your next function, email Speakers' Spotlight at 

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