The Influence of Networks on Business Impact

Those who learn to collaborate and improvise most effectively prevail

During World War II, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) erected a temporary building on on its central campus to house the Radiation Lab. The plywood structure's purpose was to house the primary radar-development institute of the Allied forces. Without a formal name, it became MIT Building 20#.

    When the war was over, the building and its collection of narrow hallways and spaces found new uses. The Laboratory for Nuclear Science, the linguistics department, the machine shop, a particle accelerator, the ROTC, a cell culture lab, and a computer free zone piano repair shop were housed in the building int he early days.

    The breakthroughs that came from MIT Building 20 included radar, the commercial atomic clock, the technology we use to detect gravitational waves, and modern linguistics and cognitive science. How did those breakthroughs come about?

The Origin of Brainstorming

    To understand what was at play, we should travel back in time to a book published in the late 40s by Alex Osborn, a partner at ad agency B.B.D.O. In Applied Imagination Osborn shared secret tips and strategies to be ready when inspiration struck. Some of them — like carry a notebook and pen with you at all times — are still popular today.

    But it was the idea on organizing groups to work together that catapulted the book and its author to fame. “Brainstorming” took the world of business by storm. Quantity of ideas over quality, no judgement, freewheeling associations are all familiar concepts. Sessions made people feel good because of their contribution.

    The idea was not challenged until 1958, when Yale University conducted an empirical test. The results were surprising — the control group of solo students came up with twice the ideas than the groups brainstorming. Between 1958-1988, more studies were conducted, but they remained within a narrow set of constraints.

    The studies were problematic, says Scott Isaksen# — they did not take into account Osborn's suggestion the participants prepare through a course of problem solving as a condition for a successful session. In the Yale research, individuals and groups were actually asked to brainstorm, and there was no group to group comparison under different instructions. The studies also did not address facilitation, nor evaluation.

    In other words, Yale provided the precedent, and everyone followed in its footsteps.

Strength of Networks

    This has implications for future applications of brainstorming in group settings. Because while the current outcomes on brainstorming are questionable, there is no question on the value of generating new ideas and creative problem solving. Increasingly, we need more people to come up with them together.

    Human creativity has become a group effort, we work better with others. Ben Jones# at Northwester University's Kellog School of Management confirmed that the level of teamwork has increased. His analysis included 19.9 million peer-reviewed academic papers and 2.1 million patents over a span of 50 years. The myth of the lone genius is just that, a myth.

    In 1985. Robert Kelley# found the missing link. Kelley conducted some research at Carnegie Mellon University in response to questions on how Bell Labs created star performers. What makes some people outperform others?

    What he found was that rather than being exceptional engineers, the star performers were exceptionally good at “knowing who knows.” A strong network of connections gave them the ability to network their ideas and identify the missing links to solving problems.

    Innovation requires we go beyond the echo chamber and learn to see things from different points of view. Business impact requires some form of micro-innovation regularly. While consistency, reliability, and peace of mind are the hallmarks of a good experience we return to, novelty has a place in what makes those experiences memorable.

Friends of Friends

    We can't possibly know everything there is to know about an issue or body of knowledge, but we can make it our business to know who to ask. There exists what researchers have named the “small world” phenomenon, an effect or result of having weak ties with others we discover casually when bumping into people at parties. The star engineers in Kelley's research knew who to ask.

    Network science reveals that the most powerful networks are formed by tight connections linked by others through the strength of weak ties. In other words, two or more groups of people with strong connections among themselves and a bridge in between them. This is why most of our activities require a combination of bonding and bridging.

    Bridging however is possible only after the bonding. Rather that trying to meet all people or too many people and knowing them superficially, it's much more valuable to get to know a small number of people really well. These relationships then open the door to their connections and other potential opportunities.

    When we need to solve important problems, domain expertise is crucial. But it's also important to look across different fields. Leonardo da Vinci had many careers. He was a scientist, a mathematician, an engineer, an inventor, an anatomist, a painter, a sculptor, an architect, a botanist, a musician and writer.
He also managed to get hired by the Duke of Milan to make weapons. 

    Rather than thinking about the exceptional nature of polymaths, it's useful to focus on the definition of the word. Edward Carr, Deputy Editor of Editorial at The Economist, says polymaths are “people who know a lot,” but it's not enough to know. To be part of this exclusive club, one must do something with that knowledge.

    It's the borrowing from one domain for the other that expands the original ideas. Something the scientists occupying MIT Building 20 experienced regularly. How do we poke at ideas to improve them?

Playing with Boundaries

    Thinking further about Osborn's method, it was Charlan Nemeth#, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, who put another piece in the brainstorming puzzle. One that was previously untested — disagreement and not agreement stimulate a more productive conversation.

    In 2003, Nemeth's research found that a group where debate conditions exist is much more creative than groups without guidance and groups with instruction not to criticize. She found that disagreement creates tension and encourages a higher resolution commitment to get to the heart of things. Unfamiliar ideas and perspectives also stimulate creativity.

    Due to its temporary nature, MIT Building 20 was extremely flexible and it changed configuration organically to make room for its occupants and their projects. To build the atomic clock, Jerrold Zacharias literally cut the floors in hos lab.

    Morris Halle, the founder of MIT's linguistic department, tore down was room dividers to make room for discussion and Socratic interrogation. Subsequently, Noam Chomsky# cross referenced biology and psychology leading to the birth of cognitive science# and linguistics as a natural science.

    The narrow hallways of the building were the perfect choke points for conversation and the networking of ideas across disciplines. Good ideas also depend on the value of fluid networks. Adjacent fields of inquiry are fertile ground, and provide the opportunity to disagree from a different point of view.

The Nature of Collaboration

   Respectful disagreement is also a form of collaboration — it helps us make ideas better to need to dig deeper to explain them. The bread and butter of collaboration is generosity, the willingness to pitch in and help others. This was among the findings in Kelley's research. While technical competence matters, star performers find a way to help co-workers solve their problems.

    In addition to creating goodwill, looking at different issues also exposes someone to more information they would otherwise not come across. Helping others also helps us deepen social connections. Collaboration also helps projects become more successful, even in the most competitive stage — Broadway.

    Brian Uzzi of Northwester University and Jarrett Spiro at Stanford University conducted research that found# that the best Broadway shows were produced by networks with an intermediate level of social intimacy.   

    Physical proximity helps collaboration thrive. The deep social bonds we develop when working together helps further our work and word of our work.Even Steve Jobs, who was famously guarded about product innovation, early in his career spent time assembling diverse teams and learning all he could about the industry from experts, networking his knowledge and testing reactions in conversation.

Networks of Influence

    There's no question that networks play a significant role in business. From the small world phenomenon to the strength of one's connections to the friend of friends, our activities require a combination of bonding and bridging. Proximity plays a role in our ability to be exposed to more information and points of view, but so does generosity.

    To network ideas, it's important to increase the quality rather than just the volume. Brainstorming, when we prepare properly for it and we have a good facilitator, is a path to more ideas. But it's also the door to thoughtful disagreement and discussion, which pushes us to develop concepts further. The latter is worth some initial discomfort.

    As Charles Darwin says, “In the long history of human kind, those who learn to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”