In preparing for our upcoming Executive Perspective in Chicago on September 18/19, my team has been exploring what is meant by “edginess?”  What does edginess look like in its various forms?  When and how is edginess good, productive, appropriate?  When is it bad, counterproductive, inappropriate?

John Hagel and John Seely Brown in their landmark paper, “From Push to Pull- Emerging Models for Mobilizing Resources” contend “The edge is where the action is – in terms of innovation and value creation. Companies, workgroups and individuals that master the edge will build a more sustainable core.”   This analogy of “core” and “edge” has influenced the recently completed (though still in the final stages of documentation) research on Reaching Level 3 Business-IT Maturity.

Many IT leaders when talking about the “core” are referring to the “legacy” systems and their drag on resources and forward motion.  They are typically referring mostly to the computer systems and infrastructures they have built over the years and have to maintain.  But in reality, the core goes much deeper than the systems and technologies.  Business processes – especially when you include the unautomated practices and workflows that interact with the automated ones, are hard to change.  The mindsets that dominate “core” thinking and “edge” thinking are radically different.  I’ve noted before that quality guru Joseph Juran distinguished between “preventing bad change” (keeping processes under statistical control” and “creating good change” (innovating processes and products, or creating “breakthrough” performance as Juran put it) and the different management approaches and structures each requires.  Most IT leaders have focused for years on management approaches more consistent with preventing bad change than creating good change.  This has created a mindset that abhors risk taking. 

So, back to edginess.  People can be edgy – those with strong opinions that often feel at first like they come out of left field.  I worked for a boss once that included in our evaluation criteria, “uses appropriate edge!”  This led to a great deal of dialog (all enlightening) and sometimes, real-time coaching when a consultant used appropriate versus inappropriate edge.  In that context, edge was taking a strong point of view that we believed in, even if it felt at the time that client did not share that point of view.  This, of course, is fundamental to good consulting.  Clients don’t hire consultants to blindly agree with all their positions and plans!  There is often invaluable information in edgy people – be they employees, consultants, customers or business partners.  Sometimes, of course, they are wrong, or their timing is off – but there’s still useful information in “hearing” them.  I had a CIO client once that had one of these “edgy” people (let’s call him Fred), and he just did not know how best to leverage him.  We were trying to help his organization become more innovative at the time.  Everyone I spoke to suggested we talk to Fred, and bring him into a workshop we were planning.  When I suggested this to the CIO, he said, “No – Fred’s too disruptive!”  The funny thing is, the CIO really wanted to increase the innovativeness of his organization – and yet his own instincts resisted the some of the very same attributes he wanted to see.  He had risen to CIO by being a great manager, running a very disciplined and effective shop.  He had the vision to know he needed to moved the shop beyond that (beyond Level 2 to Level 3, in the nomenclature of our Business-IT Maturity Model) but was inhibited by his own instincts.  It’s a case of, “I’ve found the enemy – and it’s me,” or “Be careful what you wish for!”  I think Fred left the organization soon after that – and I believe it was an unfortunate loss.

Technology can be edgy – by which we mostly mean “on the leading edge.”  Many IT shops have a well-worn principle that states, “We will be a fast follower of emerging technologies, but chose not to be at the cutting edge.”  I won’t comment here on the pros and cons, and even validity of such a principle, but clearly such shops have made an explicit decision (at least, in principle) not to be edgy in terms of technologies.  What will it mean to such an organization when they want to move to Level 3 – to become more innovative?

Humor can be edgy.  The late George Carlin was certainly edgy!  And therein lies the rub.  When are you “at the edge” and when are you “over the edge?”  The answer of course is relative to the observing party, but being edgy, with anything, introduces risk.  Risk that must be balanced against trust, and much has been written about the nature of trust and its role in the move towards Enterprise 2.0. This issue of the edginess of humor and how and where to draw the line came up in our collaboration with Second City (comedy and improv) who are working with us on the Chicago Executive Perspective event in September.  How should we define the boundaries?

I will continue with this “edgy” theme in upcoming posts.

BTW, sometimes I get questions about the photos or illustrations I select for a post.  For those not in the know, the photo here is of the guitarist/backup singer from the successful Irish band U2.  He goes by the name of The Edge.