In the mid-1980s, a Robert Kelley of Carnegie Mellon University began to research why some engineers at Bell Labs performed so much better than others. Initially, what he found didn’t make much sense, By any conventional analysis, the outperforming engineers were nothing special. They seemed just like anyone else.
Yet when he looked at their networks, he began to understand the secret to their success. The best engineers weren’t necessarily any smarter than anyone else, but they were masters at “knowing who knows.” It was their ability to make connections that helped them identify the crucial insights that could crack a tough problem.
A number of later studies, ranging from Broadway plays to the design firm IDEO to currency traders found much the same thing. Great innovators are able to see things others can’t because they function as effective knowledge brokers. They are able to build networks that connect them to diverse knowledge and insights that help them to solve tough problems.
Building A Tight Circle
We tend to think of networking as a matter of putting yourself out there. You go to unfamiliar places, meet new people, give them a firm handshake and look them straight in the eye. However, network science reveals that the most powerful kinds of networks are made up of tight clusters of connections that are linked to other tight-knit groups through something called the strength of weak ties.
So ironically, the best way to start building a strong, far reaching network is to deepen your relationships with those that you already know from work, school or elsewhere. One of the strange oddities of network math is that our friends tend to be more influential than we are, so there is value that can be unlocked by those close to us that isn’t always obvious.
It is through building close, trustful relationships that you can best gain access to your friends’s friends and their friends as well. These secondary and tertiary connections tend to be amazingly broad and, by accessing them through someone you have a strong bond with, you can usually find people willing to help.
So before you head out to your next meet-up, think about whether your time could be better spent getting to know one of your colleagues a bit better.
Exploring New Connections
For decades, creativity researchers have understood that deep domain expertise is essential for creativity. It is those that know a particular area very well who best understand which are the important problems, what approaches have already been used and what would be truly novel.
Yet it is also true that great breakthroughs arise through synthesis across domains. Darwin spent years studying fossils and morphology, but it was an essay about economics that broke the logjam and allowed him to put the pieces together. In much the same way, it was Watson and Crick’s broad approach that helped them win the race to discover the structure of DNA.
More recently, researchers analyzing 17.9 million scientific papers found that the most highly cited work is far more likely to come from a team of experts in one field that borrowed a small piece of insight from another. Innovation almost always involves a novel combination.
The only way to find that unlikely strand is to constantly make new connections. The more diverse information you come across, the more likely you are to find that seemingly random piece of insight that can help you.
The Power Of Generosity
Making new connections is more than just having a general curiosity. People have to want to share their insights with you. In his study of engineers at Bell Labs, Kelley found that the best engineers were great team players and practiced what he called “small ‘l’ leadership.” They were eager to help others and understood “that it is often more important to make the assist than the score.”
In the research that led to my book, Mapping Innovation, I found much the same thing. Although many of my sources were incredibly prominent, they were also tremendously helpful and considerate. When I sent the sections to fact-check, I was amazed at how often they asked me to assign less credit to themselves and more to others they worked with.
When you think about it, it makes sense. Sharing with others makes them more likely to want to share with you and strengthens bonds. Greedy, egotistical behavior, on the other hand, puts people on the defensive and creates an atmosphere in which people feel more guarded. That makes it that much more difficult to come across valuable information.
Networking To Spur Adoption
One of the most tragic stories in the history of discovery is that of Ignaz Semmelweis, who pioneered the practice of hand washing at Vienna General Hospital in the 1840s. Unfortunately, he lacked the networking skills to gain acceptance for his discovery and the germ theory of disease didn’t become accepted for another two decades. Semmelweis died in a mental hospital, ironically from an infection that he contracted under care.
Contrast that to the work of Howard Florey who, when confronted with limitations on funding his work on penicillin in England during World War II, made use of the connections he made as a Rhodes Scholar. He received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to continue his research in the US and, working with other labs there, was able to make crucial discoveries that ended up making penicillin a viable therapeutic drug.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Kelley found the same effect in his research on engineers. Average professionals expected that their work to be immediately accepted, but the star engineers began building support among those most likely to accept the idea. Only later did they start working their way through higher thresholds of resistance to gain full adoption.
And that’s something we all too often miss. Ideas don’t change the world alone, but depend on small groups, loosely connected but united by a common purpose to truly make an impact. Innovation is always about networks, not nodes.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com