Building on Good Ideas

In his book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky discusses the paper The Social Origins of Good Ideas, authored by Ronald Burt at the University of Chicago, and says a couple things that really resonate with me on the importance of your social network in interpreting and acknowledging innovation, and the effect of closed networks (within your working team) at discouraging or ignoring good ideas. Speaking about Burt, Shirky says:

“In his analysis, a dense social network of people in the same department (and who were therefore likely to be personally connected to one another) seemed to create an echo-chamber effect.”

In other words, familiarity discourages ideas. Shirky uses the term “bridging” to describe the action of extending one’s network broadly, versus deepening relationships within an existing network, as an important aspect of vetting an idea across a diverse set of people. Sharing these ideas within the “echo-chamber” limits the potential of your idea (the effectiveness of your argument within your familiar circle). Reading this, I instantly thought back to my teenage years when I recognized the reality that you are never popular in the town where you grow up. However, as soon as I moved, I was that ‘mysterious new kid’ and the girls paid a little more attention (until they got to know me, at least). 🙂  It also made me think about how easily people will accept the wisdom of a consultant over the voices of internal teams.

Shirky concludes that the most successful “idea people” are the ones able to reach outside of their primary social networks, connecting to other social networks. He surmised that bridging predicted good ideas, and a lack of bridging generally predicted bad ideas. The trick is setting up a system that allows the consistent identification, validation, and recognition of ideas.

“Even while the judicious use of social connections increases the proportion of good ideas, most ideas are still bad. It’s not enough to find some way to increase the successful ideas. Some way needs to be found to tolerate the failures too.”

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Servers and Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and CMO of revealit.io, a blockchain-based video technology company.