Today, I spoke to William C. Taylor, who is a cofounder of Fast Company and coauthor of the national bestseller Mavericks at Work. His latest book is called Practically Radical. In this interview, William talks about new trends that are shaping the workplace, obstacles individuals are facing right now, how to stand out from the competition, and more.

What are some economic, social, and technology trends that are shaping the future of work?

There’s so much happening that it’s hard to single out a few small trends. So let me point to the biggest trend of all, which affects both how organizations compete and how people work. We are living today through the age of disruption. You can’t do big things anymore if you are content with doing things a little better than everyone else, or a little differently from how you’ve done them in the past. The most effective leaders I’ve come to know don’t just rally their colleagues to outrace the competition or outpace prior results. They strive to redefine the terms of competition by embracing one-of-a-kind ideas in a world filled with me-too thinking. That goes for individuals, too. Being different today is what makes all the difference.

And that means you need a whole new approach to work, leadership, and innovation. My friend Harriet Rubin, one of the great innovators in business-book publishing, and an accomplished author in her own right, describes this trend as follows: “Freedom is now a bigger game than power.” Power is about what you can control. Freedom is about what you can unleash.”

Translation: The most effective leaders no longer want the job of solving their organization’s biggest problems or identifying its best opportunities. Instead, they recognize that the most powerful ideas can come from the most unexpected places: the quiet genius buried deep inside the organization, the collective genius that surrounds the organization, the hidden genius of customers, suppliers, and other constituencies who would be eager to share what they know if only they were asked. That’s the difference between success and failure today, and the most important new dynamic with respect to the future of work.

Can you name some of the obstacles companies and individuals are having right now in the current business environment?

The biggest obstacle for organizations and individuals remains the incredible capacity for complacency, bordering on self-delusion. It always feels risky, and at times it can feel downright scary, to do something really new. But when it comes to thriving in an age of widespread uncertainty and rapid-fire change, the only thing more worrisome than the prospect of too much experimentation and change may be the reality of too little experimentation and change—especially when there are too many competitors chasing too few customers with products and services that look too much alike.

Let me tell you about a conference I was at a few years ago. It was for leaders of regional banks across the United States. The setting was beautiful, but the mood was somber. Much of the talk was about how awful the business had become. There were lots of bankers, with lots of problems, looking for lots of sympathy from one another.

It was enough to make me, as an outsider, feel sympathetic too—until one industry insider explained an overlooked source of the bankers’ pain. This market-research guru runs a firm that has conducted thousands of “mystery shops” and interviews with front-line employees at retail banks. He told the executives that during their visits, his firm’s researchers always ask bank employees a simple question: “As a customer, why should I choose your bank over the competition?” And two-thirds of the time, he reported, front-line employees have no meaningful answer to that question—they either say nothing, and look to excuse themselves from the conversation as quickly as possible, or, in his words, they “make something up on the fly.”

The bank executives seemed unsurprised. I was stunned. How can the leaders of any company expect to outperform the competition when their own people can’t explain what makes them different from the competition and better than they’ve been in the past? That’s the real problem with so many organizations today, whether the macroeconomic forecast calls for boom, bust, or something in between. It is also the huge opportunity for executives, entrepreneurs, and innovators of all stripes who are prepared to shake things up by doing something truly distinctive.

Can you explain how IBM and Swatch have made strides through tough circumstances?

These are two of my favorite big-company turnaround stories, and they illuminate very different ideas. A big part of the IBM story has to do with the “hidden genius” theme I mentioned earlier. Over the last five years, IBM has launched all sorts of initiatives to shake up its culture, challenge its legacy of top-down control, and surface insights from engineers and executives all over the world—including its Innovation Jams, a remarkable experiment to rethink how IBMers think. With Innovation Jams, tens of thousands of employees answer questions, share ideas, and influence the company’s point of view on new markets, promising technologies, and emerging problems.

A few years ago, the company posted detailed information on key technologies that had been developed in its labs, and invited rank-and-file participants to suggest ways to turn these nascent technologies into real businesses. Much of the impetus for the Jam came directly from CEO Samuel J. Palmisano. As the story goes, during his annual review of the cutting-edge work being done by the company’s research division, Palmisano was struck by the enormous potential impact of so many of the technologies in IBM’s labs. But he was worried about how he and a small group of senior executives could work through the enormous challenges of figuring out which technologies to commercialize when.

They just weren’t smart enough to make those calls, because nobody could have been smart enough to make those calls. Palmisano’s answer was to make it possible for 150,000 participants in 104 countries to spend 72 hours debating which were the most promising technologies and what were the most effective ways to bring them to market. After that first round of grassroots interaction, a team of 50 executives spent a week making sense of the conversation, looking for trends, and identifying 31 “big ideas” that stood out from among the cacophony. Participants around the world then got another 72 hours to refine and develop those ideas. Ultimately, IBM wound up investing a total of $100 million in the ten most compelling ideas. The process worked so well that IBM turned the Jam itself into a business—selling its expertise in virtual collaboration to other big companies eager to discover what their people already knew.

The Swatch story illustrates a different point. I’m convinced that one of the big reasons for the failure of so many change programs is that by focusing almost solely on what’s wrong with their organizations, and by importing off-the-shelf strategies devised by outside experts consumed with what’s new, leaders undervalue what’s right with their organizations, and overlook home-grown strategies rooted in the wisdom of the past. In his first inaugural address, President Clinton offered his perspective on national renewal. “There is nothing wrong with America,” he argued, “that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” That sentiment speaks to the renewal of companies as well as countries—it’s a political insight with big implications for making change in business.
I don’t have the time to go into details on the turnaround strategy devised by CEO Nicolas Hayek, but I will say this. At his core, for all the radical changes he unleashed, Hayek was a deeply conservative leader who looked to Switzerland’s 450-year watchmaking tradition as a source of strength rather than as a burden of history.

He didn’t reinvent a crisis-ridden organization by disavowing its legacy and reaching for solutions cooked up by turnaround specialists and finance wizards. Instead, he realized that the way to devise a game plan for the future was to draw on the compelling ideas around which the organization first took shape—ideas that had gotten lost or disfigured through decades of uninspired leadership, me-too growth strategies, and deadening bureaucratic practices. There was nothing wrong with the Swiss watch industry, he concluded, that could not be fixed by what was right with the Swiss watch industry.

How do you stand out from the competition now? What about online with social networks?

Honestly, standing out from the crowd is all about how you think, not what marketing strategies or social-media technologies you use. It’s all about how you think and what you see. Here’s the simple message: It’s not good enough to be “pretty good” at everything anymore. You have to be the most of something: the most elegant, the most colorful, the most responsive, the most focused. For decades, organizations and their leaders were comfortable with strategies and practices that kept them in the middle of the road—that’s where the customers were, that’s what felt safe and secure.

In the new world of business, with so much change, so much pressure, so many new ways to do just about everything, the middle of the road has become the road to nowhere. As Jim Hightower, the colorful Texas populist, is fond of saying, “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” To which we might add companies and their leaders struggling stand out from the crowd, even as they play by the same old rules in a crowded marketplace.

What are some ways to stay relevant and stay ahead of the competition?

Here’s the one question that matters for leaders, and for rank-and-file contributors, as you try to stay relevant: Are you learning as fast as the world is changing? I first heard this question from strategy guru Gary Hamel, the world-renowned innovation expert, and it is the ultimate challenge for anyone determined to unleash big change in difficult circumstances. In a world that never stops changing, great leaders can never stop learning. How do you push yourself to keep growing and evolving—so your organization can do the same? And remember: Among leaders and organizations, the most eager learners tend to be the most accomplished teachers as well. So look for ways to share what you’ve learned. As Aristotle famously said, “teaching is the highest form of understanding.” The best way to demonstrate your status as a thought leader is to teach others what you know—whether they are customers, suppliers, or even direct competitors.

William C. Taylor is a cofounder of Fast Company and coauthor of the national bestseller Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win (with Polly LaBarre). He has published numerous essays and CEO interviews in the Harvard Business Review, and is a featured blogger for HBR. He’s written management columns for the New York Times and for The Guardian (London). A graduate of Princeton University and the MIT Sloan School of Management, he lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts, with his wife and two daughters. His latest book is called Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself.