You’re Not Alone

Original ideas born of Onlyness often get squashed and squished by the status quo.

And haven’t we all seen leaders who try and scale ideas in a way that ends up squishing and squashing their teams’ onlyness? It happens more often than we’d like to admit.

It’s sad to watch and even sadder to experience.

It’s because we mimic that which we’ve seen modeled. Acting like that old boss of yours, who always wanted to be right and direct work instead of honoring the onlyness each of us has. Or, it’s because we’ve been conditioned to seek approval from others so we keep telling the boss what she wants to hear — giving away your own power and selling out the idea. Or, even worse, that original idea keeps stalling out if you take your eyes off the ball because you haven’t build a crew of people equally committed to that idea.

You’re not alone. There a lot of us with these problems of scale.

Even people who believe they have an idea born of their Onlyness struggle with scaling that idea without defaulting to older, hierarchical (not-onlyness-centered) constructs to scale.

For example…

A CEO of a social enterprise described her problem as that of “scale”. She wanted to grow fast to meet an important need. She had ideas for how to grow, including doing a TEDtalk, writing a book, hiring program builders to grow programs in 50 cities, bigger fundraisers, etc. Doing them all made no sense, of course, so she came to me with the question: how do I best scale?

As I looked at her extremely long list of things to do, I worried about two things. First was that she was focused on the brand-building instead of the actual product-type work. And, second, she was trying to do the work herself. Not that she didn’t have a board or a team, but that the genesis and creativity and energy was largely coming from her.

And, she revealed something crucial. She tried to say it “in passing” but of course it was so important.

She had started two (2) other initiatives before. And they had each died off when she couldn’t work any harder than she already was. That told me (and she confirmed) that she needed to use a different mode of work that would change how she conceived of herself and the idea, and of leadership…. so that the idea would scale AND go further, way beyond her individual efforts.

This is what a lot of people don’t understand. Ideas might be born of you (onlyness) but they are made manifest by many. The way to scale is not by DOING the most or even BEING the smartest and visionary leader… But, to build a coalition of people around that idea born of onlyness… so that the idea became co­-owned and executed.

Ideas become real, collectively. We now that theoretically. But in practice we struggle.

Most of us don’t know how to get people to co-own that thing.

But we can learn how.

What does that look like?

Well, it’s step by step work; in this case, the CEO and I worked together over 12 months to figure it out, meeting over skype once a month and staying in touch over email.

●  First, we figured out WHY she wasn’t relying on her team. She had a backstory (like a lot of us) that led her to believe counting on others would break her heart. We had to uncover that backstory and look at it to see it no longer served her or the project. And she had to realize that she had learned how to count on others but in a limited way; she was fine if she was directing them, but not able to let them co-lead the idea. By naming several things that were shadows — unnamed beliefs — about what kept her safe, we were able to teach her as the leader to know how to trust and count on her own people.

●  Not surely thereafter, she wanted to fire someone. I didn’t know if it was the right decision or not. But as we dug around together, it turned out she was judging them for not being *just like her*. The CEO wanted to be valued for her onlyness but was unable to value the onlyness of her own team members. I was able to do an intervention to call her on this logic, and then help the CEO see how she didn’t need a mini-me. (Instead, she needed to focus on leading by purpose. But she wasn’t doing because she didn’t know how; we worked on that, too.)

●  By month 4 we were talking about a board transition to get her the Board that her organization now needed; she needed to let go of people who would simply support the CEO in being the grandest doer in history. She needed a Board who could strategize with her. Redesigning the board reflected the shift within the CEO to move from being the hardest working member of the team to her role as “keeper of the flame”. She needed a board who would hone and push the thinking around how to make this idea scale.

●  By month 5 we started to design a specific new business model to scale the purpose. One that made complete sense for this moment in time, for this organization’s purpose, and was almost “easy” in comparison to other models the CEO had been previously thinking of. Crafting a business model that makes sense isn’t about applying existing business models, but thinking how does one allow many to co-create value. We brainstormed ideas, found relevant examples so the board could make an informed decision.

●  By month 9, the CEO was making progress on a business/scale model and it wasn’t a heavy lift because she now had a strong coalition already committed to the idea. This was a tectonic difference from where she started; she moved from being the hardest working member of a team, directing others to do as she said. Now, she was leading an idea into the marketplace and engaging many to join in.

The CEO would self­-describe that she went from being a “strong creative person” to an “amazing collaborative leader”. That she was able to “up her game” as she worked on both business strategy and leadership challenges.

So, I share all this (and thanks to the CEO who let me publish her story with redacted info) to remind us all … there is more than one way to scale. But most of us don’t know it.

“Scale” in the old construct — whether it’s Uber or Amazon, depends on sameness: The ability to deliver car experience number one thousand at the same quality level as car experience #2 was accomplished by routinizing tasks so it didn’t matter who specifically performed them; most people are simply cogs in a machine. This type of scale suggests the “boss’ job” is to be right and direct the work of many. Or suggests raising more money is the key to scale. It’s why you can have a deeply original idea but you and it keeps stalling out: because you don’t realize how you have not built a crew of people equally committed to that idea.

To scale via the Onlyness construct lets each person add their bits of what only they can, and have it add up to something meaningful. In an ideas economy, work can scale by having people add what only they can, onlyness. It enables more creativity by sharing idea ownership. This type of scale requires you to trust people to do their bit, to recruit and organize people based on a common purpose, and to distribute power as widely as possible. In Onlyness, scale happens because people passionately take responsibility for what only they can.

NEXT/DO/ACT: Most of us hold onto our precious ideas as if in a closed fist, to make sure they stay ours. We don’t even see ourselves doing it. We don’t understand why we feel all alone as we try and scale. We don’t see how we want certainty and control and don’t realize how this is limiting scale. While this approach may make an idea entirely our own, it doesn’t create what we really want: impact. The solutions to so many things — solutions that come by innovation and growth — are near at hand. But to get these prizes, we need to change our approach to scale. We need to free ourselves from thinking we need to do it all by ourselves. Or to accept the hierarchical constructs of scale as the only way to do it. Because only then will we see that the way we scale ideas is by being collaborative, inclusive and purposeful. Because the future is not created, the future is co-created.

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