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Building Better Business Book Club 

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Book Review – The Power of Onlyness

Power of Onlyness by Nilofer Merchant

In this fantastic book, Nilofer Merchant discusses how ordinary people can make a real difference. I was lucky enough to see Nilofer speak at the Meaning conference in Brighton in the autumn of 2019. Book now really cemented the message that she gave from the stage. The book is describing how we have reached a time in history, possibly never before possible, where our ideas and thoughts can be brought to bear to impact the whole world.

Making a dent.

In the first part of the book, we learn to really understand the power of our meaning. It is here that I realised that the ideas (to make a “dent” in the world) could be world-changing. They can also be much more local, at the level of the impact your business has on its market.

In part two of the book, we moved on to the power of meaningful relationships. To me, this was the most important part of what we were to learn from a business point of view. The stories bring so much to life that shows how important sharing your vision and recruiting others. The right people will lift your vision. They will make your “dent” as big as you would want it to be.

A business imperative.

When working with other businesses I look to see who their partners and suppliers are. I’m assessing how collaborative their relationships are. Why? I’ve seen (over many years) that the most reliable and consistent businesses have strong collaborative relationships with the people that support their work. In chapter 5 of the book, we learn about common purpose.

For me, this was one of the most important lessons of the book. Highlighting the differences between commonality (“we’re all exactly the same “), conformity (“we give up a part of ourselves to others”) and common purpose (“a shared view of what the end goal should be”) We learn that this is not necessarily an aligned view of exactly how we will achieve it. Common purpose is the glue. As a result, the group does not suppress ideas at the expense of greater unity. Instead, it allows those ideas to grow and develop in a variety of ways within the group.


The question of trust always comes to the fore. In particular the question of whether it is acceptable to make money when solving a problem in some areas (eg. Social care). Of course, in the context of providing sustainability, there has to be a fair financial outcome.

This part of the book clarified that scale creates greater momentum and eases sustainability. It was also interesting to see the recommendation that in order to create trust transparency is important. If we share the economic model that we are using for the business, the basis behind the charges that we are living in, then people can make a decision, with good information, about whether they feel that their contribution is worthwhile for them. It is a form of social contract where somebody understands, clearly, the basis of the exchange that they’re making and the benefits that they are getting. In my opinion, when we are Building Better Business we should be building greater trust too. To do that quickly transparency is vital.


In part three of the book, we learn about the actions that are needed to make a real difference in. Starting with the need to galvanise many to take action Nilofer identifies the champion’s role. That role is to be a trusted disseminator of accurate information. She clarifies that charisma and influence are less important than authenticity.

The final chapter of the book discusses unlocking the power that arises from creating a “dent “. But one key aspect of that is the collaborative one. That if a reward is aimed at individuals then individuals will tend to work in isolation. They may do that with common purpose but they still tend to work alone. The mindset of measuring each individual in order to determine the rewards that they receive constrains them to act alone. When we reward the team then they support each other and can deliver extraordinary results.

I have studied collaboration for many years – the extent of what is achievable is more closely correlated with the number of strong relationships within the group than with the total number of people involved. With two people there is only one possible relationship with three people there are three relationships with four there are six possible relationships. This exponential growth in impact is how singular ideas can change the world.

Nilofer’s book will open your eyes to what is possible, and you don’t need to apply her ideas to some enormous project. When we want to be Building Better Business it is really important to understand the power of our own meaning as the business owner. Great businesses have a clear purpose and a distinct vision. The principles in this book are a key part of what will lead to your success.

About the Author
Nilofer Merchant spent 25 years working in technology. She has served on corporate boards for Nasdaq-traded and private companies, as well as on public governance boards and lived on three continents. She forecasts the future of work and see the day coming (soon) when connected people can do what once only large organizations could.