"You can't start building your network the day you need it," said Dave Gray at the most recent Business Innovation Factory (BIF) Summit. The summit meets every year, in Providence, Rhode Island to connect an eclectic group of innovators, from technologists and inventors to artists and musicians.
Gray's remark had a curious irony to it. Just an hour north of Providence sits Route 128, Boston's famed "technology highway. As AnnaLee Saxenian explained in Regional Advantage, it was an inability to form connections that led Boston's large, vertically integrated, standalone firms to lose the edge to Silicon Valley's ecosystem of startups.
So it is perhaps fitting that the theme that emerged from this year's BIF was how connection drives transformation. Make no mistake. Innovation is a team sport. Look behind any conspicuous accomplishment and you will find a community of purpose made up of small, tight-knit groups that form seemingly random connections to other tight-knit groups in order to create something truly new and different.
Small Groups of Tight Connections
These days, Yolanda Wisher is widely acclaimed as a poet and artist. Yet she honed her craft within a tight knit group of friends in West Philadelphia who supported and challenged each other. "We wrote serial poetry in chalk on sidewalks," she remembered at BIF and those bonds have stayed with her even as she has moved on to loftier heights.
A lack of connection often has the opposite effect. Dr. Nneka Tapia spoke of how the incarceration of her father led her to retreat from the world around her. James Anderson recounted how his broken family life led him to seek connection in a street gang and, eventually, a felony conviction and a prison sentence.
In both cases though, it was connection that pulled them out of a downward spiral. In Tapia's case, a supportive teacher helped her see her own potential. She went on to earn a PhD in Clinical Psychology and has devoted her career to reforming criminal justice and helping at-risk youth. Anderson became a founding member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and an entrepreneur.
The power of connection is just as important in corporate offices as it is on city streets. A.J. Paron-Wildes, an Architectural Designer at Allsteel cited her company's research that found that the one thing that best determines knowledge worker productivity is social cohesion. Without strong, trustful bonds among coworkers, productivity declines dramatically.
Large, Loosely Connected Networks
The problem with small, tight-knit groups is that they tend to be fairly homogenous and become more so over time. The people we live and work with tend to have the same information and experiences as we do. So as collaboration deepens, the danger of groupthink sets in and we often miss out on emerging opportunities and threats. That's what happened to the Boston tech firms.
Researchers at the Northwestern University analyzed nearly 18 million scientific papers and found that the most highly cited work most often comes from a highly focused team of specialists working with someone from a different field altogether. Amazing breakthroughs can happen when deep knowledge from a particular field is combined with insight from some other place. Sometimes adding even a smidgen of randomness can work wonders.
That's why just as we need to invest in building strong, trustful relationships, we also need to go beyond our comfort zone and seek out new connections. As John Kao put it at BIF, "The magic is in the blend." It was to that end that Alexis Hope's talk focused on the value of taking her work out of the MIT Media Lab to connect with those who can benefit from it.
Probably the most inspiring story was that of Kimberley Motley, who connects oppressed people around the world with legal assistance. As it turns out, being unconnected can not only leave you unenlightened, under some conditions it can also land you in deep trouble.
Communities of Shared Purpose
In his talk, Andrew Hessel showed a picture of when he introduced Internet pioneer Vint Cerf to biotech luminary Craig Venter to underline the extent to which the world of computers has merged with the world of biology. The community that is emerging from that synthesis is revolutionizing fields as diverse as cancer research and agriculture.
In a similar vein, Prince Charles Alexander explained how exploring the connections between music and technology helped him shape the work of musicians ranging from Mary J. Blige and Aretha Franklin to Sting. During a storied career, he produced more than 40 Platinum and Gold albums and won a Grammy award in the process.
Whenever we see a new trend break out, whether it is a scientific breakthrough like genomics or a viral music genre like Hip Hop, we assume it came from nowhere. Yet that's never true. Usually, small groups have been working in relative isolation for some time, but when those groups connect and form a shared purpose, a cascade can ensue and the idea explodes onto the public consciousness. Change is always about networks, never nodes.
It is by forming these types of communities of purpose that we can truly impact the world and make a difference. As Kare Anderson put it, "You need to find your sweet spot for collaboration to build a network of diverse allies."
Preparing for a Trigger
While researching my upcoming book, Cascades, I had the opportunity to speak to Vitaly Shabunin. He leads the Anti-Corruption Action Center, which spearheaded many of the key reforms in Ukraine after the Euromaidan protests brought down the corrupt Yanukovych regime. In just a few months, his organization achieved far more than anyone thought was possible.
Vitaly explained to me that the secret to success was that his organization began work years before the protests broke out, investigating corruption and connecting with international institutions and like minded people within Ukraine. At the time, it seemed like a futile effort, but when the regime fell, Shabunin and his colleagues had the knowledge, experience and resources to drive truly transformational change.
Many change efforts fail because they wait for the event that triggers a window of opportunity to begin their efforts. You can, of course, protest when the banking system collapses or when a rogue police officer shoots an innocent civilian, but little is likely to come from it, despite your good intentions. Or, as in the case of the Boston tech firms, you can try to adapt after disruption hits your industry, but your chances for success will be slim. It's always better to prepare than adapt.
People who truly change the world don't just seek to make a point, they work to make a difference through connecting with others. In the final analysis, it is not the lone genius or the brilliant epiphany that changes the world, but small groups, loosely connected, united by a shared purpose.