The Best Ideas Don’t Come From The Smartest People

I’m currently reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, a book that attempts to explain the impact of technology and people’s subsequent change in behavior on social networks.  I had to put the book down when I finished chapter 9, because I had a personal “aha” moment.

I’m successful professionally not just because of what I know and who I am, but because of the people that make up my network.

Now, I knew this already. But Shirky offers data that prove it.  Ronald Burt studies social capital, social networks and good ideas. His study, cited in Here Comes Everybody, asked managers of the supply chain function of a company submit business improvement ideas to new members of management.  The new managers would then rate the ideas, and reject ideas that were not feasible.

Burt was examining two types of social capital—bridging (connecting disconnected groups) and bonding (strengthening ties of an already connected group).  Supply chain managers were used in this study because they’re historically very isolated from the rest of the company (experiencing very little bonding).

The results? Good ideas more frequently came from managers that practiced bridging. Even more interesting, ideas that came from managers who were highly connected, but only within their own departments, were “rejected with disproportionate frequency, often on the grounds that the ideas were too involved in the minutiae of that particular department and provided no strategic advantage for the company as the whole. ”

How often have you sat in a meeting listening to people rehash ideas with those very characteristics?  It’s likely symptomatic of a lack of outside opinions and/or connections.

To return to my aha moment, Burt wrote:

“People connected to groups beyond their own can expect to find themselves delivering valuable ideas, seeming to be gifted with creativity. This is not creativity born of deep intellectual ability. It is creativity as an import-export business.”

This is what resonated with me.  Sure, I’m smart and have some good ideas…but often times my best ideas are “imported” from people I’m connected with outside of my department, institution, or profession.

The best ideas don’t come from the smartest people—they come from people with a wide range of connections.

Have you been placing enough value on your external connections—your bridging capabilities?  How has this type of social capital impacted your career?

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