Do you know the old saying, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know?” Of course you do, because when it comes to business, who you know is often more crucial than anything else to getting the job done. Knowing the right people can help you land a deal, complete that big project, hire the right person, get financing…the list goes on.
Strong networks have been shown to help businesspeople achieve all kinds of goals. And social networking tools make it easier to build a strong network that includes more of the right people. But when the goal you’re seeking is innovation, who are the right people to know? They may not be whom you expect.
Recent research reported in Harvard Business Review examined whether social networks helped people be more innovative in the workplace. The study looked at employees of a company that used an in-house social media tool to enable employees to share information. Researchers looked at how employees connected to each other using the tool and with whom they connected.
Surprisingly, the study found that the most effective innovators weren’t those with the biggest networks of contacts. They weren’t those whose networks boasted better-connected individuals. And they weren’t the employees who shared the most information.
Instead, the employees rated as most innovative had more “bridging ties”—that is, connections with other employees who weren’t particularly well-connected. (If you’re trying to envision how their network of connections would look as a graphic, the innovator would be represented by a dot at the center of an asterisk, as opposed to the hub at the center of a bicycle wheel. Visit the HBR article for a look.)
What does this suggest for how your business innovates? Often, we attempt to innovate using groups of people who are already familiar to each other. And even when we invite new people into our networks, they tend to be people like us, people we already know or people who know people we know.
Instead, try learning from and interacting with people outside your circle (no matter how wide that circle may be). That could include:
- People in different industries
- People of different age groups
- People from different countries
- People who aren’t your customers
One thing I found interesting about the research study cited is that typically, the least-connected people in any organization are the entry-level, young or new employees. These are the very people who don’t get invited to top-level meetings, whose ideas and suggestions get brushed off as “naïve” and who get a patronizing smile and “that’s not how it works” in return for their suggestions.
Instead of ignoring or minimizing these employees’ contributions, try picking their brains. How do they see things at your business? What ideas are percolating in their minds? Seeing things through someone else’s eyes can give you a new perspective on how to innovate in your company.