It’s a cliché you’ve heard before: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
That’s often said in a highly derogatory tone, criticizing people who get a job, or win a contract, or get into an exclusive restaurant, because someone they know has opened a door or an opportunity for them based more on the relationship than on their skills or experiences.
And of course that is often the way things happen. But there’s a positive side to this picture as well; when you know someone, and trust him or her, you have a reasonably accurate understanding of what s/he is capable of, and how reliable s/he is. So your predictions about how well s/he will perform should be fairly accurate.
Human beings are certainly social creatures. We form friendships in and out of the workplace; and we also have impressions and feelings about the abilities of everyone we work with, even if we don’t consider all of them friends.
Today, in 2014, we also have relationships with many people we don’t know well, if at all. On Facebook we not only have “Friends” who we are directly linked with by choice, but we also exchange information with “Friends of Friends” and with many others who share things with the world at large.
And on Twitter we often follow people we don’t know personally, usually because we believe they have some expertise or insights that we’d like to know about – or because someone we do know is following them. And of course regular “tweeters” often have thousands of direct followers, most of whom they don’t know at all.
So what? Well, some of us have lots of connections and others have just a few. It’s another way we are different from each other – another form of diversity. But even more importantly, our connections vary in terms of their relevance and value.
One very important aspect of being effective (which I define as producing value for others and ultimately for yourself) is being connected to the “right” other people – people who can provide you with the resources and information you need for a particular task. We clearly live and work in what futurist Don Tapscott calls an “Age of Networked Intelligence,” where who we know, or can connect with, is what makes us successful – or not.
[I wrote about Tapscott’s ideas and their implications back in January, in “Creating Through Collaboration.” That note draws on Tapscott’s outstanding TEDGlobal talk "Four Principles for the Open World" in June 2012, in which he discussed the challenges and the opportunities that the new social infrastructure we call the Internet creates for us.]
Which brings me to one more important idea from Ken Thompson’s bioteams research. Over the past several weeks I’ve been studying and writing about the value of leading teams and larger organizations as living systems rather than as machines – an idea that many others have also addressed but which I have become convinced is central to our future.
During this journey of discovery I have drawn heavily on Thompson’s book Bioteams: High performance teams based on nature’s most successful designs. In the book he describes four principles that he believes are followed by nature’s teams (organisms of all kinds, the human immune system, bacteria, insects, and so on) and which have powerful implications for human teams:
- Collective leadership. (that was our focus three weeks ago: “Leading the Living”);
- Instant messaging. (I addressed that topic two weeks ago, in “Instant Mind Meld”) ;
- Ecosystems (the size of a group or team has direct implications for what it can and cannot do, and what it is best at doing – I discussed that idea last week in “A team is not a team is not a team”); and
- Clustering – getting the many involved by focusing on the few (today’s focus).
Ultimately Thompson’s insight is simple, but profound: human networks, like all other networks in nature, are “clumpy” (my word, not his). That is, some people are far more connected than others; some subnetworks are much denser than others.
Think about it: surely you know some “extreme connectors” - people who seem to know everyone in a community or a profession - while other people seem to be isolated, with fewer friends and fewer professional relationships.
In Thompson’s words, we can reach the many most effectively by focusing on the few – those few who are the extreme connectors. For me the Big Idea embedded in this insight is to leverage the connections that all your team members have, not just those of the formal leadership. Of course, if you also embrace the concept of collective or shared leadership, you are probably already leveraging all of those connections instinctively.
So it's not just who you know, but how many of the right who’s you know. But remember, it’s not just about reaching more people; the hidden value in all those connections is more ideas, more insights, and more experiences. Collective intelligence is very real, and very powerful.
A final note: what this all amounts to is recognizing that living systems – which I contend includes all organizations and teams – are by their very nature networks. If you are not now living and breathing network leadership, shared power, and collective intelligence I don’t believe you have much of a future.