Interact with a wider circle and your ideas will take flight

Herminia Ibarra Leadership The Financial Times

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: “I live my life in widening circles, that reach out across the world.”

Widening circles on social media make for more novel business contributions, according to a recent report in MIT Sloan Management Review. In a study of five companies, authors Salvatore Parise, Eoin Whelan and Steve Todd found that employees with diverse Twitter networks — in which the people they followed were for the most part not following each other — had more highly rated ideas than Twitter users with more compact networks and people who did not use Twitter at all.

Decades ago, the University of Chicago sociologist Ron Burt showed that what matters about a social network, whether face-to-face or virtual, is neither its size nor the prominence of its contacts but the extent to which it provides exposure to people and ideas you do not already know.

People whose networks span what he calls “structural holes” — meaning the gaps between groups of people — tend to be more innovative and successful. They get higher compensation, better performance evaluations and more promotions. This is because they are exposed to alternative ways of thinking and behaving and can then connect those novel elements to local needs.

In a much-cited study, Professor Burt asked managers in the supply chain of the electronics company Raytheon to write down their best ideas about how to improve business operations, and then had the ideas’ quality rated by two company executives. He also mapped out the network of who consulted with whom.

Just as in the Twitter study, the highest-ranked ideas came from managers who had contacts outside their immediate work group. Most managers, however, overwhelmingly bounced their ideas off a close and compact circle of immediate colleagues, and, as a result, their ideas were not developed.

In most large corporations, widening circles are the exception, not the rule, because managers are busy with routine tasks and often operate in silos. It is not uncommon for even the most superbly trained executives to have networks that are literally redundant because most of their contacts also know each other.

Yet, as the retired US military commander General Stanley McChrystal and his co-authors conclude in their recent book Team of Teams , adapting quickly to today’s shape-shifting threats and opportunities depends not on better formal structures and procedures but on having people who can bridge the structural holes in any given ecosystem.

Gen McChrystal led Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq. The book describes how the battle was being lost against al-Qaeda there, not because of a lack of capacity but because the military and partner agency teams involved in the effort did not operate as a network.

Lacking people who spanned the structural holes between the teams, valuable information would linger for days or even weeks before anyone would see it. Even when the new information reached the close-knit teams, they often failed to see its relevance because each interpreted it through their own disciplines, procedures, and cultures.

So Gen McChrystal devised ways to integrate disparate units into a high-performing “team of teams”. Swapping highly trained commandos and intelligence analysts — two groups with radically different training and world views — for six-month stints, and assigning previously neglected liaison officer roles to the highest performers, for example, created new connective tissue and improved the teams’ collective intelligence.

Using the language of the Twitter study, these initiatives created more “idea scouts” with the capacity to sense what was happening far and wide, and more “idea connectors” who can see how far flung ideas are relevant for solving problems closer to home.

From Zappos’ now infamous embrace of the self-managing “holacracy” system to the military’s efforts to adapt to a fundamentally different manner of waging war, widening social circles hold the key to busting silos, transcending hierarchies and responding dynamically to market and social needs.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015 (registration required).