Notions of the “insider” permeate our discourse. “Hollywood Insiders” prognosticate on the Oscar chances of the latest Tom Hardy vehicle. “Beltway Insiders” traffic in the detail of Washington DC power plays. The same structure supports our understanding of “insider trading” and “inside baseball.”
The “outsider,” meanwhile, plays an equally compelling role. Witness Sergio Leone's framing of Eastwood's silhouette as he rides into town. Consider the fervor with which political candidates rush to tout their “outsider credentials.” If it feels as though we occasionally get a little too maverick-ey—well, there’s a reason for that.
Former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers frames the contrast well, as recalled by Senator Elizabeth Warren in her autobiography, A Fighting Chance:
“He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People—powerful people—listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.”
Summers outlines a Faustian bargain. The price of credibility is assent. The price of independence is credibility.
Our evolving understanding of the relationship between insider and outsider coincides with an increased dialogue around organizational change. From architects to product designers, agencies to social entrepreneurs, the value of design and new working models are espoused as remedies to calcified institutions.
What, though, is the capacity of these outsiders to affect meaningful change, particularly if—as architect Dan Hill writes—“beyond a certain scale, an organisation’s first instinct is often to protect itself against transformative ideas”?
An even more intriguing question, perhaps: is the membrane that separates the insider from the outsider a permeable one? It is among the great ironies of our time that a society constructed atop zeroes and ones is wrestling with binary thinking. To address that question, we turned to Col. Casey Haskins. A former Chief of Strategic Plans for the Multi-National Force – Iraq, and the Director of Military Instruction at West Point, Haskins describes a “sweet spot” on the periphery where transformative change takes place.
We were inspired to use Col. Haskins’s response as a provocation of its own; to use his theory of the periphery to elicit a broader perspective on the interplay between insiders and outsiders. We’ve gathered reactions from a designer sold on the value of hard-earned insider status, a researcher focused on social enterprise, an expert on food chains, a career librarian, a venture capitalist who believes the distinction to be a relic of another time, and a series of lecturers and administrators from leading research institutions. For each, provocative commentary outlines a discussion that cuts to the heart of the work in which each is engaged. For many, this is deeply personal.
Col. Casey Haskins
This idea of insider/outsider suggests a clear-cut dichotomy, in which the former has access to power at the price of fealty to the institution—and the latter is free to speak truth but wields limited influence. Is this delineation meaningful—and moreover, is it universal?
Inside vs. outside is one of the most basic distinctions we have, and one of the most important. Arguably, life—at least the kind we’d recognize—began when the first proto-cell developed its first membrane. That allowed an electrical charge to be carried by the material inside that was different from the charge outside—with all sorts of consequences. Over time, the amorphous stuff on the inside of the cell wall grew more complex, developing eventually into highly specialized parts—many of which, like the nucleus, became separated by their own membranes from the rest of the cell. Now there were degrees of “inside” and a hierarchy of “insiderness.”
It’s not a bad metaphor for society. According to anthropologists, early family groups grew into larger clans. Eventually, some of those clans joined in loose alliances with other clans. Then, with the introduction of agriculture, clans settled down—although not all, and not all to the same degree—to form villages, and towns, and cities, and principalities, and after many thousands of years, nation-states. At every point, groups were defined by who they included, with the rest of the world typically considered outsiders.
This pattern of development was the result of a series of problems: agriculture, then war, and eventually manufacture and commerce and trade. In each case, the solution was to expand the size of the group—and the trick to that was to redefine what it meant to be an insider.
Just like with cells, there were degrees of inclusiveness, as well as overlapping loyalties. Thus you might consider yourself a felt merchant, a Londoner, English, and a Christian—and probably in that order. There’s a Kurdish saying that captures it exactly: “Me against my brother; me and my brother against my cousins; me and my cousins against strangers; me and the Kurds against the world.” Sliding degrees of insiderness.
Today, divisions can be more slippery. While the meaning of “insider” has always changed, now it changes faster. You can be Chinese one year and American the next; a Googler this month, part of a startup next month—and you might go back and forth several times. Also, there have always been “partial insiders”—traders, explorers, pioneers: all traditionally occupying the overlap spaces in a Venn diagram, with loose affiliations to different groups that might otherwise not have been connected. Once rare, partial insiders are now the norm. Should we consider an adjunct professor part of the faculty? What about a contract employee? A consultant? Do any of them count as insiders? It’s not clear. And the answer seems to change from one moment to the next.
Again, none of this is new except the scale. There are still places where, 20 years after you move there, you’re still considered “the new guy.” But today such places are rare—and increasingly, they’re seen as backward. In the more creative and more dynamic parts of our society, boundaries are more permeable. The lines that separate “inside” from “outside” are fuzzy. And they’re different from one place to the next. And they shift over time.
Boundaries are the place to watch. That’s where innovation happens. There’s much less innovation at the center, where insiders—wielding power, invested in the status quo—try hard to control things. Beyond the boundary too, you find less innovation, or at least less innovation that’s relevant. Even if distance and perspective give outsiders a clear view of the problem, they tend to be too wrapped up in their own concerns to do anything about it—and anyway, they usually have little influence over the decision-makers at the center. Insiders focus on how things should be. Outsiders know a lot about what is…but they have a hard time getting anyone to listen.
On the periphery, just inside the boundary, is the sweet spot. There, tensions sometimes balance out. People on the periphery benefit from the protection the system provides, but without all the encumbrances and control normally found in the capital, or at corporate headquarters. For that reason, the periphery is more interesting than either the inside or the outside.
People near the boundary—not outsiders, exactly, but not full insiders either—come up with a huge share of all innovations. They also provide a disproportionate share of turmoil. Depending on how things work out, the periphery can make an organization dynamic and successful, or it can wreck the whole thing. A lot depends on how those at the center respond to the unorthodox ideas that constantly originate there. Do they encourage them and try to harness them? Or do they try to suppress them? It’s a road with a ditch on either side. Too much uncontrolled experimentation, and the whole society can spin into chaos; too little and things get brittle fast.
The tug of war between insiders and outsiders, and the critical role of the periphery, have all been there forever. In his superb book How Societies Change, Daniel Chirot described it this way:
“In agrarian civilizations, then, somewhat marginal areas were more likely to be innovative and change than the heartlands of the great empires. Such areas were less likely to be blocked by established elites able to prevent change. The presence of many competing little political units was likely to stimulate change and adaptation more than the security of a single, big, united state. But the capacity to innovate was dependent on maintaining a fragile balance between competition on one hand and the chaos that would occur if warfare got out of hand and became too destructive on the other. At the opposite extreme, too great a success could lead to unification, which would produce its own deadening effect after several generations.”
What’s changed today is that the periphery is no longer marked primarily by a tangible, geographical boundary. Now it’s more of a social boundary—and it’s usually less well defined. In a single meeting, it’s possible to find managers and employees (insiders), contract employees (partial, temporary insiders), consultants (mostly outsiders, with a smallish degree of insiderness), and possibly even suppliers or customers (outsiders, but encouraged to identify with the team). In the days Chirot described, that wouldn’t have happened.
Being an insider still matters a lot. Yet there are many degrees of insider, and not all are equal—and while power seems to be hierarchical, rising as you move toward the center; when it comes to results, things don’t work that way at all. The marginal members of the group—the ones who barely qualify as insiders—very often exist in conditions which make them the most creative part of the entire organization (or society: take your pick; it works the same at every level). They produce new ideas and try out new arrangements (not all of them successful by any means). True insiders, near the center, tend to be good at tweaking things, at making the status quo more efficient and more profitable: what business gurus call “sustaining innovations.” But it’s rare for the center to be disruptive. Which makes sense. When you’re satisfied with the status quo, big experiments are too risky. The risk of failure is high; with the downside being potential disaster, and the upside normally limited to small improvements. Therefore, big experiments are usually left to the periphery—and they only happen because the center is either unaware or unable to prevent them.
People on the periphery are the disruptive ones. People in the center choose whether or not to take advantage of the innovations that result. Outsiders, by definition, are usually not involved. Therefore, while the distinction is between insider and outsider, the most important dynamic stems from those in the middle.
One last point. Researchers looking at teams over the past couple of decades have discovered that the insider/outsider distinction makes a huge difference in team performance—whether you’re talking about an infantry squad, a surgical team, a sales unit, or a group designing the next-generation Mars rover. It doesn’t matter; the dynamics involving insiders and outsiders seemingly apply to all. From the research, a general consensus is forming:
- Teams comprised of strangers don’t work well. Not at first, certainly, until after people start to learn how to work together, and in some cases never. All members start as outsiders, and it takes a long time, and the right conditions, for them to make the transition to insiders.
- By contrast, teams that go way back, comprised entirely of insiders, especially when every individual knows the others and has worked with them—such teams have a completely different kind of problem. Highly experienced, they tend to be efficient. But a lot of times they’re not so effective. They’re really good at what they do—but what they do might not be what needs to be done. They have a tendency to resist change. Also, because they generally have similar views, assumptions and ideas don’t get challenged much. And because loyalties tend to be strong, that balance, which every team has to find, between taking care of the team and accomplishing the mission, starts to shift toward favoring the team. Usually this happens without any discussion; they’re such insiders that loyalty and protecting the group take precedence over everything. On rare occasions, this can slide all the way to criminal conspiracy.
- The highest performing teams—meaning those that find a good balance between efficiency and effectiveness—know how to work together. But they don’t take for granted exactly what they should do; they challenge each other, stimulate new ideas, force others to look at a problem from a different perspective, and are willing to do so themselves.
- After a lot of trial and error, the research seems to show that a 50-50 mix of insiders and new team members is about optimal.
So, just to recap my four main points:
- The distinction between insiders and outsiders definitely matters. But it’s not a simple either/or; there are degrees of insiderness.
- The boundary that separates insiders from outsiders has gotten fuzzier and more permeable.
- The periphery, just inside that boundary, is the place to watch. That’s where innovation mostly occurs. If it’s controlled properly, the whole society profits (although to the discomfort of some insiders, pleased with the status quo, who nevertheless find themselves forced to change). If it’s not controlled properly, chaos can reign—or the whole society can stagnate and become brittle.
- High-performing teams need to have a mixture of insiders and partial insiders. The groups balance each other and compensate for each other’s shortcomings. However, true outsiders, by definition, aren’t part of the process.
Col. Casey Haskins is a former Chief of Strategic Plans for the Multi-National Force – Iraq, and the Director of Military Instruction at West Point
The four main points that Casey concludes with are instructive and informative. But I think there is something more fundamental going on, at least in terms of organizational (or beyond—societal!) structures and norms. The insider/outsider distinction feels to some extent backward-looking, assuming a world where information and knowledge are hard to find, obtain and share. Where they are, in a word, analog.
If most or all of the world’s information is available and can be shared (see, e.g., Wikipedia, YouTube), then to some extent everyone can be an insider for some period of time. Or, rather, the distinction doesn’t matter anymore.
In other words, maybe we now require another analogy to describe what is happening. Maybe that analogy can come from video games—the concept of leveling up as one attains skills. Instead of looking at groups of people by insider/outsider status, we look at a group or institution in light of the levels that the participants have reached at a certain moment in time. Maybe then the right mix of people is a diversity of levels.
Such levels are not necessarily associated with longevity or social status within an organization. Instead of, say, five years of experience at one company, what if a person had five different one-year experiences at five different companies. And thus had achieved five different levels of experience. Multiply that by 1,000,000 people having 5,000,000 levels of experience.
Clearly there is a generational thing going on here (“these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds/are immune to your consultations/they're quite aware of what they're going through”).
What I am most interested in is finding a different metaphor to describe the new mode of institutional growth. A mode that does not assume there are boundaries (like those associated with insider/outsider) because, in effect, the internet has reduced or even eliminated those boundaries, physically and metaphorically. Instead, perhaps, the more prospective question to ponder is how future institutions will operate with a mix of disparate people who have attained different levels of experience who may only come together for very short periods of time.
Andy Weissman is a partner at Union Square Ventures
I have seen the dynamic Col. Haskins describes play out in both ways—with both creative and destructive outcomes for a team or institution. With regard to my experience at the Rhode Island School of Design:
- I am not an RISD alumnus (outsider)
- I am not a member of the faculty (outsider)
- Nor am I a practicing visual artist or designer (outsider)
- I came to higher ed from the business world (outsider) but have now been at RISD for 7 years and developed many strong productive and collaborative relationships across all parts of the institution (insider)
- I work in the Media Group, which—as a group of marketers, media professionals, storytellers and designers of communications systems—puts us at the intersection of a large share of institutional strategies and operations (insider)
- Yet the Media Group is often more viewed as “in service” to the institution than as a key partner in helping to plan and define institutional vision (outsider)
Both as an individual within my team and as a representative of a team within the organization, I’m always navigating the peripheral space that Col. Haskins describes. But I’ve found that deriving a sense of confidence with occupying the periphery has been a way to understand most fully what’s special about RISD’s culture and pedagogy. I can maintain a dialogue with people within the institutional boundary and make new connections daily with people outside the institutional boundary, which allows our team to view and test our ideas through numerous critical frames. In the best outcomes, the work we do is destructive of the status quo, but authentic to RISD’s values and mission—and, as a result, capable of impact.
Our team itself has a healthy mix of people across the spectrum of insider/outsider, which means that we absolutely challenge each other. It can be frustrating but makes you endlessly more aware of yourself and the problems you’re trying to address. It’s also true that we have no place for outsiders who, for whatever reason, can't convert. They don’t last on our team for very long.
Brian Clark is the Senior Director of Marketing Strategy at the Rhode Island School of Design Media Group.
As organizations become increasingly distributed and amorphous, the role or notion of the outsider can take many forms—the consultant, contractor, vendor, partner, customer, supplier or another kind of agent that doesn’t perform a dedicated in-house activity in service of the enterprise. Each of these roles could also be considered through the lens of the insider if performed frequently, regardless of whether they are performed within the confines of the corporate boundary. So what then, if any, are the qualities that can only be possessed by an outsider?
We can define outsiders by expertise, capabilities or resources, but the most identifiable attribute is their position outside the boundary. A true outsider operates without undue influence from the individuals or groups on the inside. It’s their distance from the organization’s center that gives them power and influence over other forces.
Individuals and institutions alike can be outsiders with accretive influence—a consultant with specialized expertise that is practiced or applied without bias. The three branches of government may contemplate the interest of an organization but are guided more by their own constitution. One of the most prominent examples of this outsider definition is the government’s role in the turnaround of GM.
In 2008/2009, the government used its considered power and resources to save General Motors. An outsider, they applied capital to GM’s disruption. This realignment touched all aspects of the business including changes to leadership, forced concessions from unions and creditors, the embracing of new technology, simplified product assortments and the creation of go-to-market plans. And, it worked. It illustrates the power of incentives with cash, and the need for solvency, as pretty compelling catalysts for improvement. Activist investors, in similar ways, affect meaningful change on larger organizations.
The organizational periphery, despite the suggestion otherwise, is not the sole province of innovation and progress. It’s an illusory perception created by the natural evolution of the enterprise. For more than a decade, Google has placed search at its core and monetized this through advertising-related revenue. At $75 billion in annual revenue, they’ve done so effectively despite competition and evolving user behaviors. It’s not a stretch to imagine that its business has a large center. Efforts to pursue balloon-based internet access or autonomous cars can only exist outside the center. It’s not more fertile out there; it’s just where new work happens.
Erik Pelletier is the Chief Digital Officer at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Insider vs. outsider, us vs. them, is a dichotomy that individuals and organizations have historically used to make sense of our world; to put people and organizations into neatly framed boxes that make it easier for us to know how to behave toward different groups. Yet, the boundaries between these groups are becoming less meaningful and relevant as organizations recognize the benefits of encouraging voices from both insiders and outsiders and actually listening to their perspectives.
Traditional outsiders are increasingly applying pressure to influence, and even demand, change from organizations. Organizations, which in multiple ways and degrees are dependent on outsiders, are starting to recognize the benefits of listening to them. Simultaneously, organizations are also starting to recognize the benefits of employee voice and upward communication for the well-being of both employees and the enterprise.
An extreme case of engaging traditional insiders and outsiders are social ventures. As organizations that leverage market mechanisms to create social change and solve wicked problems, such as poverty or inequality, social ventures operate in multi-agency environments with diverse stakeholders. The evidence suggests that SME social ventures are more innovative than purely commercial SMEs and often create entirely new markets. An important part of how social ventures achieve high levels of innovation is their approach to engaging traditional insiders and outsiders.
The approach of social ventures is to engage both traditional insiders and outsiders in multiple ways. They frequently solicit feedback in ad hoc and informal ways, from groups commonly viewed as outsiders to the venture. They create more formal low- and high-tech platforms that make it easier for traditional insiders and outsiders to share ideas, opinions, suggestions, and complaints. Many go so far as to involve traditional outsiders in creating, managing, and governing their social ventures through formal roles and processes as well as forming partnerships with community members, charities, and businesses.
The benefits of these diverse strategies are numerous. Outside critique and feedback often comes without negative connotation and can focus on improvements, suggestions, and upward positive communication. Bringing diverse perspectives catalyzes both radical and incremental innovation, and fosters a sense of community. This community can provide access to resources and an ongoing stream of outsider perspectives to those inside the organization—reframing the underlying question about the insider vs. outsider dichotomy. Instead of considering how to differentiate between insiders and outsiders, the insights from social entrepreneurship encourage us to consider how to give voice to both insiders and outsiders and leverage their insights in a meaningful way.
Andreana Drencheva is a lecturer at the University of Sheffield.
I’ve spent nearly my entire work life in municipal government—the ultimate in insiderism. Government has a well-earned reputation of being slow and cumbersome; it's pretty dang hard to get fired, and that does create the ability to speak the truth without paying the price of fealty to the institution. So often, though, that reality doesn't lead to positive change, but negative. I have certainly experienced staff with the attitude of “why change, why innovate, why stick my neck out (again), if I'll just be smothered by the same bureaucracy that protects me, because I'll still get a paycheck?”
It's easy in government to subvert the dichotomy, because the bar isn't very high; anyone willing to put more than their toe in the water and figure out how to use bureaucracy to suit their purposes will often be rewarded by not only the immense resources government can bring, but pent-up enthusiasm from staff—and, ultimately, the public in the community who see responsive service. I have been incredibly fortunate to have been able to experiment throughout my career in libraries, and to see, in many cases, the immediate improvements in the communities I serve. But I'd be lying if I said I haven't paid a price every single time for being the outsider, even as projects succeed. I can think of one position in particular where, as the head of reference and adult services, I was notably the only outspoken staff member in favor of working to serve the adult readers in our heavy reading community, and to take advantage of the power of our online presence to do so. The obstacles I had to overcome as an outsider in that situation led to my having to leave the organization; I just couldn't do it any more. Do I feel vindicated that the very projects my colleagues in leadership fought against ended up being some of the projects to earn, after I left, the most kudos that system has received? Partially. But I also think how much more powerful an impact we could have had if someone had cleared those obstacles instead of throwing them up.
Whether it is meaningful or universal, that delineation is there for me.
Stephanie Chase is the Director of the Hillsboro, Oregon public library system.
Sociologists have long recognized the insider/outsider dimension. Georg Simmel wrote about it in his classic "The Stranger," remarking on the way strangers are apparently universally feared. What do strangers—or outsiders—threaten? The perceived or actual bonds within the insider group/s. An outsider may have new ideas; has no direct communal ties or affiliations; can easily sway or be swayed therefore.
Endogamy, exogamy, homogamy, propinquity: basic rules of old-school mating and marriage are now replaced by global economies and technologies that make the insider/outsider distinctions quite shifty.
And in truth, it's hard to know for certain, but we sociologists believe that the concept of "identity" (as we currently frame/conceptualize it) didn't come into existence until fairly recently, all other things being equal. Some people were born, lived, and died perhaps within the same square mile or two, never leaving—this was a fact of existence. They didn't have to “see themselves” and situate themselves to others with identity statements because everyone of course knew one another. No need for "I'm a hard-driving go-getter whose mantra is..." or "I'm a Pisces, heterosexual, ex-MMA fighter who loves drag races and… drag shows."
Structural-functionalism, as a theory of why social life is structured as it is, posits that the status quo is necessary. Order keeps disorder at bay—makes it easier to recognize disorderly influences because “order” is so… orderly. The dandelion in the otherwise fully green lawn, for example. The “bad seed” in the otherwise “nice” family.
We thrive on order, said Émile Durkheim, founder of sociology. We need it, and stability and predictability. Things that don't serve their function dissolve, fall away, are no longer relevant, he said.
Boot camp. Boot camp and prisons and mental hospitals are total institutions, as we say in sociology circles. They're meant to break down individuality and replace it with a Self that is mostly developed from broader structures. Boot camp—make you a military Self/Person/Man. Create the bonds together to create the team with intrinsic values and connections.
Rebecca Plante is a professor of sociology at Ithaca College
The topology of Casey’s essay—the outlying borders versus the calm control of the capital, the unchanging hinterlands far from the ebbing ports and harbors—sets off two thoughts in me, both models from others which I think add character to what’s going on in the land described.
Firstly, an idea for which I have never found much reference, but an idea I love dearly. It’s from Dr Arnos Penzias, Nobel Physicist in 1978, from his subsequent work in organizational theory (from outsider to insider): “What matters is not so much size but distance between individual employees and their customers. As a result, each corporate organization needs to prune its ‘insides’ so as to enhance its surface area.” In short, the closer to the border more of your people operate, the better. With too many people operating far from the surface, you can become lost in a reality you cast for yourself, with little input from the edge.
Secondly, from Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, there’s the tale of the medieval goldsmiths and their workshops formed of a mix of long-term apprentices and the transitory “journeymen” who’d move from city-to-city, joining a workshop for weeks or months before moving on. The Khaldun quote in the book encapsulates the type of workshop that worked best: “The good master presides over a travelling house.” The crossing of borders, from outsider to insider and back again, moving through those permeable walls with regularity, is the key for me. What’s important is the direction of travel, not the location of feet.
Good governance in this model, then, depends I think on these two factors. How close to the border to you build your population centers, where insiders can mix and learn together with outsiders; and how do you make sure people can travel across the borders to create value together. It’s a good lesson for companies to learn. And increasingly an important one for countries too…
John Willshire is the founder of the strategic design firm Smithery.
Two distinct thoughts:
- We are all inside or outside a series of social, work and creative circles. What we’re really talking about here are the highest levels of institutional power. This overshadows the influence of local insiders. Consider those who skip a presidential election because they say their vote doesn’t matter. On a national level, this depends a great deal on where they live. Scan a little further down on that presidential ballot, however, and there are local elections and ballot initiatives that have great day-to-day importance. Don’t for a minute believe that local governance is inconsequential; any real estate developer worth his or her insider salt will attest to that. School boards, planning boards and election boards may not be the apotheosis of power in America, and given my experience with various town boards and councils that sometimes struggle to achieve a quorum, these circles aren’t particularly hard to break into. But because of the low barrier to entry, this is exactly where individuals or causes that some might consider borderline or uncomfortable have an easy time getting public exposure. As far as their community is concerned, these are the insiders. For national power brokers, these local governance laboratories are the highly influential periphery.
- For a perfect example of Casey’s suggestion that the periphery is where real change occurs, consider the recent history of the electric car. Long the domain of eccentric tinkerers and concept cars designed to do little more than boost an auto company’s innovation street cred, electric vehicles are finally gaining some traction. Why the change? Some point to the popularity of the hybrid car, giving drivers a taste of what electricity can bring without the fear of running out of juice miles from a charging station. Manufacturers, too, saw that the public just might be ready for a vehicle minus the gas. There’s some validity to this view, but I think the more likely reason is insider fear of the periphery-roaming, rocket-launching Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk. A charismatic Silicon Valley startup outmaneuvering the big auto manufacturers? Unacceptable. The threat of a sexy new electric sports car pushed Chevrolet and Nissan to speed up its own electric car plans and soon consumers were faced with a brand new dilemma: Which long-distance, modern electric car to buy? Without the push of a well-funded known quantity like Musk, there’s little reason for car manufacturers to do more than sit back and enjoy their growing hybrid sales.
Peter Hanlon is Deputy Director of Programs at GRACE Communications Foundation, with a focus on the food, water, and energy nexus.