One of the most solid findings in innovation research is that creativity happens in social networks–what I call group genius. When it comes to innovation, a social network doesn’t mean Facebook or Snapchat. It means the connections you have with other people in real life. People in your profession, of course, but it helps even more if you mix that up with informal connections outside your field. Research in Social Network Analysis (SNA) goes back 30 years, way before you got your first smartphone. It tells us what kinds of informal networks lead to success and innovation: so-called small world networks. Here’s how it works. Imagine each of the people you know or work with, or even that you just met once or twice. Each relationship is a link in your social network. Now think about how strong your link is with each person. You’ll be strongly linked to some people, the ones you see every day or that you collaborate with on a team. Then there’ll be the people that you might see once a year–someone that you’d recognize if you bumped into them at a conference, but that you don’t see on a regular basis. Those are called weak links.
A small world network is one where you have many links, but both strong links and weak links. You’re not as creative if you only have strong links–you need lots of weak links, too. The weak links are where you get surprising and unexpected ideas, especially if they’re people who are different from you, people who work in a different city or company or even a different profession.
And here’s the problem with two years of Zoom meetings: You can’t form weak links through remote meetings. Weak links happen unexpectedly, sometimes through a chain of other weak links. You meet someone who ends up being at the bar or restaurant where your team is celebrating a milestone, and you get introduced by someone else who’s kid goes to the same school. You meet another person who happens to be at a different conference in the same hotel, someone you would never meet in any planned or organized circumstance, and you end up waiting in the same line at Starbuck’s. These impromptu unexpected contacts lead you to your weak links and your small world network.
Now that the Covid winter is lifting, lots of people are ready to get back out there and build their network. It’s time to start attending those in-person lunches and those annual conventions. A lot of people can’t wait to go to events that they used to try to get out of. Here’s what Lisa Lopez said about an academic conference, in a recent Wall Street Journal article:
“It felt invigorating and exciting to be in person. We were joking about how we had to relearn our social skills.”
You’ll be in this situation soon and, like me, your conversation skills will be rusty. Admit it and joke about it, because everyone else is thinking the same thing! Here’s Dr. Marc Boom, the President of the Houston Methodist Hospital system, talking about a 900-person luncheon in a hotel ballroom:
“Some of it was networking and some of it was just, you know, esprit de corps and having everybody rally behind a vision. It hasn’t happened for a while, so you sort of sit there and feel maybe a hair nervous.”
Event organizers are saying that they expect a lot more in-person events this year. The legendary Austin festival South by Southwest is back, this March. TED conferences are back. If you got the invitation, and you’re thinking about going, you should do it! I’m worried about getting on the plane to my 2022 conferences in San Diego and Denver but I’m going to make myself do it. I’m hoping to reconnect with a lot of weak links who are just as eager as I am to make connections again.