Wild Ideas

Get comfortable. One thinker wants to measure if all the activities we’re doing at work actually lead us to create more value.

Imagine being in the room when someone first pondered, “What if our computers could share information over thousands of miles?” Your first reaction probably wouldn’t be, “Yes, queen! And next, we’ll pay for boba tea with fancy watches connected to our bank accounts!”

More likely, people wondered, “Why?” Until then, workers shared computers, most commonly large mainframes, and information stayed within companies. The system worked for the way the world was.

But around the same time man was landing on the moon, some visionaries wanted to change that system, and thus changed the world.

Former tech executive and author Nilofer Merchant MBA ’00 wants to explore the setting and circumstances that make it possible for visionaries to get, well, visionary. And not only explore but quantify and measure those circumstances.

Merchant believes that companies, leaders, and meetings can make more space for innovation by making an environment where everyone is able to add their wild ideas. “We know that people need to be safe enough and courageous enough to make others’ ideas into better ideas,” Merchant says. That’s her starting line. From there, one could, in theory, find the value of that safety, or the return on investment from those ideas that the right environment helped workers share and develop. Or the value creation that happens if we start integrating the interests of stakeholders. Not just asking for their ideas but using them.

“We have this profound gap here. Right now, we can measure humans as resources, as costs,” she says, “but we don’t know how to measure them as a source of ideas.”

It’s something Merchant thinks she can develop in a new lab—The Intangible Labs—that she is founding to define the metrics of 21st-century value creation. This space will service operational leaders with a new set of metrics to measure and generate value—and values.

It won’t be the first time something has gone from intangible to measured, she notes. Think of brand value, for example. It’s gone from an idea that marketers were pretty sure mattered to one that is now measured by NPS, or net promoter score.

This is also not the first time Merchant has taken an idea and made it real.

From her work with Apple and Autodesk to bringing three books of big ideas to life to recording one of the most popular TED Talks ever, this is what she does. Merchant’s conceptualization—and actualization—of big ideas has landed her on the Thinkers50 list of the world’s leading thinkers.

It’s a list that has changed dramatically over the past decade, Merchant notes.

Ten years ago, a headline about the award in the Wall Street Journal caught her eye. She doesn’t know what compelled her, but she cut out the story announcing the recipients of a high-profile business award.

For 10 years that scrap of newspaper with the names and photos of the white men who won that year’s Thinkers50 hung around—through moves, through writing her books. It was just there. “I don’t know why I saved it,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not a pack rat by any means.”

By the time that Merchant won this recent recognition – her 4th time being listed as one of the top management thinkers in the world by Thinkers50– the world had changed. Her class of top management thinkers looked more like the. world It was a very different cohort, perhaps reflecting a business community that is making space for new people and their own wild innovations.

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