In the complexity of the modern world, the ability for teams to adjust and respond to changes in priorities and conditions is vital. Organizations are having to move from outdated models and methods to new ways of working. This transition can involve a major shift in the system’s culture or a reorientation towards new goals. These changes can also be small and incremental, such as adopting a new process or tool that is better suited to the purpose.
“Form follows function”
For many groups, this line of thought would lead to adopting a new technology, such as trading emails and bulletin boards for Slack channels. However, despite such apps, organizations continue to rely on the day-to-day interactions between their people, to get work done. This poses the questions: Are the relationships within, and between teams, teams suited to the goal they are trying to achieve.
Social Network Analysis (SNA) is a method for mapping the interactions between people. It can make the “invisible visible” by revealing the tangled web of relationships within a system. Who goes to whom for advice, or information, or to riff on new ideas? SNA is used to capture this information and extract data that can be used to generate new insights or drive decision-making.
Innovation and collaboration are both desirable traits within an organization. Executives would like to see new and original ideas, for new products or practises, emerging from within their companies. They would also like to enjoy the benefits of speed and agility that comes from teams sharing their workload as they progress towards a common goal. However, work in SNA suggests that compromise between collaboration may be necessary, as these two characteristics demand different structures from their networks.
Consider a group of people that are well-structured to offer each other mutual support. This network would likely be a dense knot of relationships, as shown below. First, we notice that almost every node in the network is connected to each other. Therefore, if one node, (let’s say the centre one) was facing some sort of challenge, the other nodes would be well-placed to rally together and help that person. If that node were, for some reason, removed from the network, the connections are in place between the other nodes to ensure that no vital information is lost to the network and to share the burden of the work. The connections between these nodes are also examples of strong ties, the ties we invest a greater amount of our time and emotion into. This suggests that these actors know each other well. They trust and respect each other, and understand each other’s capabilities and limitations. This group can coordinate their work together, divide their tasks up and trust that things will get done, and retain enough redundancy that things will continue to get done even if one of their colleagues becomes unavailable. This support network, therefore, is the ideal structure for work that requires intense collaboration.
Organizations continue to rely on the day-to-day interactions between their people, to get work done.
The unfortunate flaw in such networks is that they do not contain much diversity of thought or opinion. Almost by definition, the people with whom I form a support network are those I am close too. We would have several friends in common and would likely spend more time together, therefore, the information they have is likely information I already have. Also, due to a phenomenon called homophily, the people I form strong ties with are more likely to be people who are more similar to myself. These friends are likely to think similar things and frame problems in similar ways, which is useful in some contexts but stifling to creativity or generating truly innovative ideas.
Creativity is a difficult concept to describe in precise terms, as different creators find their own muse. However, I think a general definition could be inferred from author Stephen King’s description of where he gets his story ideas:
“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
Two unrelated ideas come together and make something new? For King that process could be as simple as the Lord of The Rings meeting a news story about chemical weapons and turning into The Stand. Another story has a salesman from IBM sitting on a plane with the president of American Airlines, and the result was the first automated flight reservation system. The key principle here is that innovation stems from exposure to new ideas and new people, people with different opinions and who can tell of situations and opportunities that you have never experienced.
So what would your social network look like if it were optimized to deliver these new ideas to you? Probably a much sparser structure such as the one below.
It turns out that weaker connections are, typically, the best sources of new information and may also provide the best inspiration for “out-of-the-box” thinking. The people you know but you don’t really share many common friends with. Those acquaintances, such as “that friend of my friend who I met that one time” act as bridges to different worlds. They have their own circles of friends, work in different industries, and have different experiences and perspectives that can allow you to reframe challenging problems and connect different strands of thought together in new ways. These interactions often provide the genesis of novel ideas and game-changing solutions. In the social network community, this phenomenon is often called ‘The Strength of Weak Ties”.
Most modern institutions require both collaboration and innovation
The ultimate challenge presented by this line of thought comes from the realization that most modern institutions require both collaboration and innovation. Many organizations will need different blends of these structures in different work units, and at different times, depending on the nature of their work. A sales team that is looking to develop business leads is probably best served to try to position themselves as the broker between disconnected executives. A developer team on a sprint could gain much from increasing their understanding of each other’s skills and developing trust. Like many aspects of modern life, there is no shortage of tools out there; the question is are you using the right tool for the job?