Networking. It's a word that evokes very different reactions among us. Love it or hate it, you probably associate networking with making your way up the ladder, developing relationships, and expanding your contacts. But if you don't associate it with innovation and breakthrough ideas, then you're missing out on perhaps the greatest opportunity networking can provide.
According to Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and co-author of The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, innovation requires radically different points of view. As we outlined in previous posts in this series,* innovators have a unique and practiced set of skills that help them acquire these out-of-the-box ways of thinking. Unlike typical delivery-driven executives who network to access resources, innovators are driven by discovery. They devote time and energy to finding and testing ideas through a network of diverse individuals. They go out of their way to meet with people of different backgrounds and perspectives to extend their own knowledge and get new ideas. Networking is a critical skill not only for generating new ideas but also for mobilizing the resources to launch new ventures.
Finding insights in unexpected places
Gregersen's book flows from a path-breaking international research project (with Jeff Dyer & Clayton Christensen) that explores where disruptive innovations come from by interviewing more than 100 founder entrepreneurs and CEOs at the most innovative companies in the world and by assessing how thousands of leaders leverage five key innovation skills--of which networking is one--to create valuable new products, services, processes, and businesses. One of the innovators they observed is EBay's Founder and Chairman Pierre Omidyar, who is quoted as saying, "I value ideas from unusual places ... I really look for people who have diverse backgrounds, diverse ways of thinking about things; what I try to do is just be exposed to different styles of thinking. And I get input from these different directions just in a very open-ended way, not in a directed way."
University of Chicago sociologist Ron Burt has referred to this sort of networking as bridging a gap between different social networks. Burt studied 673 managers in a large U.S. electronics firm and found that those managers who had a broader network of contacts were consistently rated as generating more highly valued ideas. Their access to diverse, often contradictory information and interpretations gives them an edge when it comes to spotting and developing good ideas.
Improving your networking skills
Networking is a set of skills that can be practiced and strengthened. In his book, Gregersen presents these six tips for developing your "idea networking" skills:
- Expand the diversity of your network. Expand your idea pool by identifying and visiting with people who are the most different from you along various dimensions, such as country of origin, industry, gender, profession, age, political views, and socioeconomic status.
- Start a "mealtime networking" plan. Not unlike the advice found in Keith Ferrazzi's book, Never Eat Alone, Gregersen encourages us to plan to have a meal with someone from a different background at least once each week.
- Plan to attend at least two conferences in the next year. Select one that focuses on a topic germane to you and another that isn't.
- Start a creative community. Meet regularly with a group of people who are open to discussing new ideas and who you think will stimulate your creative thinking.
- Invite an outsider. Bring in a smart person with a different background/profession/point of view to have lunch with you and your team once a week. Or, hold an open house for ideas and invite a variety of people, including non-experts.
- Cross-train with experts. Find experts in different functions/industries/geographies and sit in on their training sessions and meetings to experience their work and their world.
Watch this Innovator's DNA video to learn more about "idea networking."
You can learn more about innovation from Gregersen in his recent post on Fortune Insider and in his Executive Education courses, The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills for Disruptive Innovation and Innovation and Images: Exploring the Intersections of Leadership and Photography.