10 examples that show the value of cognitive diversity

In a previous post, the benefits of crowdsourcing were described as follows:

When trying to solve a challenge, what is the probability that any one person will have the best solution for it? It’s a simple mathematical reality: the odds of any single person providing the top answer are low.

How do we get around this? Partly by more participants; increased shots on goal. But even more important is diversity of thinking. People contributing based on their diverse cognitive toolkits

Cognitive diversity is a vital contributor to innovation. Bringing together people who have different expertise, heuristics and perspectives to solve problems has shown value time and again.  Professor Scott Page’s The Difference is a terrific book outlining the frameworks and value of cognitive diversity.

I thought it would be useful to collect some cases that highlight the value of cognitive diversity. The theories are powerful, but we respond strongly to specific examples. Collected below are ten cases of where cognitive diversity has shown its value. Feel free to use them for your own work as needed.


 

1. The mystery of our kidney tubules

Problem: Human kidneys have tubules. For years, they were assumed to be leftover, useless artifacts of our natural evolution. Hence physiologists assumed they had no purpose. Meaning their care and study could be safely ignored.

How diversity helped: One day, an engineer looked at the loops. He saw something different. He realized they were actually part of something called a countercurrent multiplier. These mechanisms concentrate liquids in a system. Suddenly, tubules were no longer evolution’s leftover junk. They were seen for what they were: vital parts of our kidneys’ operations.

An engineer with no special biological expertise saw things in a total different way.

Reference: Edward de Bono’s Lateral Thinking: An Introduction


 

2. Why this particular pathology in a drug discovery trial?

Problem: A pharmaceutical company’s R&D group was conducting a discovery study for a new drug. They couldn’t understand the toxicological significance of a particular observed pathology. They consulted with multiple experts in toxicology, but none could answer the question.

How diversity helped: The pharma firm then ran a crowdsourcing campaign, and within a few the mystery was solved. The solver? A woman with a PhD in protein crystallography using methods common in her field. An area unrelated to toxicology.

The woman with the PhD brought a completely different perspective to solving the problem.

Reference: Harvard Business School, et al study, The Value of Openness in Scientific Problem Solving (page 11 pdf)


 

3. Who has a higher probability to solve a problem?

Problem: People with expertise in a particular domain are challenged to provide workable solutions to tough problems. But these are the ones we regularly turn to for help.

How diversity helped: Researchers analyzed the outcomes of InnoCentive’s crowdsourcing challenges. What they found was surprising. For each challenge, they identified the domain of the problem. They then looked at the winning solvers. What were their domains of expertise? They found that people whose domain of expertise was six degrees away from the domain of the problem were three times likelier to solve the problem.

Getting people who are outside the domain of the problem provides higher odds of finding the best solution to a problem.

Reference: Harvard Business School, et al study, The Value of Openness in Scientific Problem Solving (page 24 pdf)


 

4. Stop new diamond fractures from happening

Problem: In the process of cutting diamonds, new fractures are introduced into the diamond. These fractures don’t show up until the diamond is in use. Manufacturers wanted to split diamonds along their natural fractures without creating new ones. But didn’t know how.

How diversity helped: This is a case of investigators consciously looking at different realms to find a solution, applying the TRIZ method. The solution came in an area quite different than diamonds: green peppers. Food companies need to split the peppers and remove their seeds. Peppers are placed in a chamber to which air pressure is increased significantly. The peppers shrink and fracture at the stem. Then the pressure is rapidly dropped causing them to burst at the weakest point and the seed pod to be ejected. A similar technique applied to diamond cutting resulted in the crystals splitting along their natural fracture lines with no additional damage.

This is an example of consciously seeking solutions outside the domain of the problem. Which is the crux of cognitive diversity.

Reference: QFD Institute, TRIZ workshop


 

5. Reducing surgery infections

Problem: Surgery exposes patients to infections, even with all the efforts to maintain a clean surgical environment. Reducing these infections would result in better outcomes for patients.

How diversity helped: 3M brought together people from three different areas: an expert in wound healing; an animal surgeon; and a specialist in theatrical makeup with expertise in adhering materials to skin. They developed a breakthrough product to prevent surgical infections.

While the wound specialist is consistent with what we’d expect, the makeup artist inclusion was quite different. She brought a particular expertise that turned out to be relevant to solving the problem.

Reference: Eric von Hippel, et al, Performance Assessment of the Lead User Idea Generation Process (pdf)


 

6. How to really help the homeless?

Problem: Homelessness has proven to be an intractable, chronic issue for cities. Municipalities spend money on treatment, overnight shelter, food. But the issue has vexed city officials everywhere.

How diversity helped: Sam Tsemberis is a psychologist. His training was to treat the mental health of people. He took a job to treat homeless people in the early 1990s. Not to solve homelessness, with its complex set of causes. Just to treat individuals, which fit his expertise. However, he saw things differently with the homeless. They operated in a set of complex circumstances. He felt the dominant thinking of experts in the homeless field was wrong, that homeless people are quite resourceful.

Lacking any prior experience in solving the homeless issue, Tsemberis assembled a team of people who also lacked any experience in addressing homelessness at scale. One was a recovering heroin addict. Another was a formerly homeless person. Another was a psychologist. And the last, Hilary Melton, was a poet and a survivor of incest.

Their solution? Giving permanent housing to the homeless. And it has proven remarkably successful thus far. Utah employed the method, and eliminated homelessness. Phoenix applied it and eliminated chronic homelessness among veterans.

Fresh eyes came up with a solution that challenged the dominant thinking in the field.

Reference: Washington Post, Meet the outsider who accidentally solved chronic homelessness


 

7. Predicting solar particle storms

Problem: When in space, astronauts are at risk from solar particle storms. Knowing when these storms are going to happen is important for their safety. However, NASA had spent 30 years unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to predict these storms.

How diversity helped: NASA cast a challenge on InnoCentive, exposing the problem to much broader types of expertise. And they received a solution much better than anything they had ever developed. A retired telecommunications engineer in New Hampshire saw the issue as one involved magnetic coupling between the sun and the Earth.

The solver was not in the space field. He had no connection to NASA. He was located far from NASA operations. His fresh perspective brought new insight to the problem.

Reference: Forbes India, The importance of diversity of thought for solving wicked problems


 

8. Who starts billion dollar companies?

Problem: What is the ‘look’ of success in start-ups? Certainly understanding these characteristics could go a long way toward identifying promising ventures.

How diversity helped: Shasta Ventures ran an analysis of 32 companies that are high flyers, including Uber, Twitter, Dropbox, Twitch, etc. They looked at the companies way back when they were raising their Series A. They found a few different traits. One that stands out:

Three-out-of-four of the companies in our survey were built and run by people who were doing it for the first time. They did not have a win under their belt or deep experience in their field, but were passionate about their product and had a unique perspective on how to serve their target customer. Having a fresh perspective is important in tackling a category as people with industry experience are often constrained by what is ‘not possible’ and why it ‘won’t work’.

Shasta notes here what others have found. People get stuck in knowing what they know. Innovation benefits from fresh perspectives.

Reference: Tod Francis, Shasta Ventures, What did Billion Dollar Companies Look Like at the Series A?


 

9. Stopping a key enzyme that powers the AIDS virus

Problem: For a decade, scientists have tried to understand the structure of an enzyme that is critical to reproduction of the AIDS virus. If they could finally figure out the structure, that would allow them to develop drugs to fight AIDS.

How diversity helped: Researchers added the AIDS reproduction enzyme structure to the online game FoldIt. In FoldIt, players try their hand at folding various proteins. Proteins are core building blocks, and they fold in very specific ways. Scientists have a hard time replicating the folding sequence; researchers started FoldIt to see how amateurs could do at replicating the folding.

In this case, insights about the enzyme’s folding were provided by FoldIt gamers (not scientific experts) within three weeks. Their strategies were instrumental in helping scientists to understand the enzyme, and initiate work to neutralize it.

Reference: Scientific American, Foldit Gamers Solve Riddle of HIV Enzyme within 3 Weeks


 

10. Auto-Tune to…ahem…enhance recordings

Problem: Music producers spent significant time putting together music from multiple takes. The process was laborious, but needed to ensure high quality recordings for release. Humans inevitably had inconsistencies, either in voice or instruments.

How diversity helped: Exxon engineer Andy Hildebrand had spent 18 years working in seismic data exploration. He developed a technique using a mathematical model called autocorrelation. His approach involved sending sound waves into the ground and then recording their reflections.

It turns out autocorrelation is also good for detecting pitch in music as well. Hildebrand, who had taken some music classes, recognized an opportunity to improve the quality of music. He introduced Auto-Tune to the industry. And the rest is history.

In this case, knowledge from one industry – oil exploration – was applied to an entirely different field – music. The cognitive diversity was a conscious application of expertise from one realm to another.

Reference: New Yorker Magazine, The Gerbil’s Revenge


 

While the most natural human tendency is to depend on those we know with expertise in a given, the preceding examples show the value of getting fresh perspectives. When everyone “knows what we know”, it’s time to expand your options.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

Talk-n-Tweet | Collaborative Innovation at Scale

Previously, I’ve described Why Crowdsourcing Works. Crowdsourcing is a case where you get many people who don’t one another collaborating toward a defined outcome.Talk-n-Tweet Collaborative Innovation at ScaleTo reiterate the principle points about the value of crowdsourcing:

  • Diverse inputs drive superior solutions
  • Cognitive diversity requires spanning gaps in social networks

Simple enough, yet actually a rich field for work and analysis. To that end, I invite to two events happening simultaneously on Thursday 25 September 2014 (12 noon Eastern):

  • LeAnna Carey’s radio show (link)
  • Twitter Innochat (link)

I’ll be on the radio show talking with Lea Carey, Renee Hopkins and John Lewis. At the same time, the weekly #innochat will follow along with the radio program. It’s a unique chance to blend live conversation with online discussion. The main questions to be tackled will be:

  1. How important is it to get diverse people to contribute to innovation, vs. singular creatives to generate innovations?
    • Doesn’t Steve Jobs point to the primacy of singular genius?
    • What is the model for cognitive diversity to generate innovation outcomes?
  2. What differentiates sharing in large groups vs. small teams?
    • How much does familiarity mean trust?
    • How to handle different personalities that will intersect?
  3. In environments where employee skepticism reigns, how do you change attitudes to open up sharing?
    • What are the ways in which skepticism can creep in?
    • What is the #1 issue that must be addressed?
  4. What are motivations for employees to contribute to an innovation program?
    • How much does “what’s in it for me?” come into play?
    • What are the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations?
  5. What techniques help drive participation in crowdsourced innovation programs?
    • What influence do senior executives have?
    • What influence does peer participation have?
    • How can gamification drive greater participation?

As a reminder, the event time across time zones:

Thursday 25 September 2014
9 am Pacific
12 noon Eastern
6 pm Central European Time

I look forward to hearing your take on this issue.

Positive Deviance vs. Best Practices

Over time, I’ve seen people write disparagingly about the use of best practices in innovation. A recent example of this comes from Paul Martin in Say ‘Best Practice’ again, I dare you. As Paul notes:

For me the term ‘Best Practice’ conjures up images of a race toward uniform mediocrity, led by those who follow the crowd.

I understand his position. It’s a version of fast-following in a way, where people do not take a fresh look at an activity. They just follow what others are doing. You may share his passion for banishing ‘best practices’. Although be careful there. Some things really don’t need innovation if they’re not critical to a company’s differentiation and growth. For instance, if there are best practices for closing the accounting books on a quarterly basis, what issue of mediocrity is there?

The issue with best practices appears to be:

  • It’s done by an organization with which you compete
  • It propagates the status quo rather than break new ground
  • It doesn’t differentiate you, so why would you do just do what everyone else does?

There is a form of “best practices” that doesn’t violate the above. It’s called positive deviance.  Positive deviants are people who deviate from the norm and achieve superior results for an activity. They don’t have access to different resources than others. They just do things differently. A great example comes from Vietnam. The Save the Children organization wanted to address the pervasive malnourishment of children. In conducting field research, they came across families that had very healthy children. What were they doing differently? They fed their children the crabs and shrimp that were around their village. These protein-rich animals were available everywhere, but were disdained as trash, not worthy of consumption. Yet, these same disdainers had children who were malnourished.

Best practices indeed!

The point here is that positive deviance is a form of best practice that is:

  • Emergent
  • Based on experimentation
  • Consistent with internal community norms and context

While best practices may come from consultants and media coverage, positive deviance is more localized. And it’s often hidden. People aren’t openly talking about what they’re doing different. I liken this to William Gibson’s famous observation:

The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.

Why not change that? In my post, Beyond Ideation: Four Fresh Ways to Generate Innovation, I talk about running campaigns for four different types of insight:

  1. Challenge orthodoxy
  2. What’s working (i.e. positive deviance)
  3. Problem-sourcing
  4. Trendscouting

These are different ways to use crowdsourcing beyond the normal ideation use case. Including finding your positive deviants.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter, and I’m a Senior Consultant with HYPE Innovation.

 

Consultant-Led Innovation

Finally, remember Innovation won’t come from plans or people outside your company – it will be found in the people you already have inside who understand your company’s strengths and its vulnerabilities.

Steve Blank, Esade Business School Commencement Speech

I think Steve Blank – well-respected thinker on innovation and entrepreneurship – has hit a key point in his speech. A company’s employees are exactly the right people to enlist in innovation efforts. Here are the qualities that make employees uniquely qualified:

  • Deep knowledge about customers
  • Understanding why customers leave
  • Strong interest in the company’s future
  • Internal informal networks to move things forward
  • Vast reservoir of existing ideas and insight about future possibilities

Organizations are starting to take these amazing attributes seriously as they think about innovation. I’ve seen some forward-thinking organizations involving employees in the process of moving forward. But not all, certainly not a majority yet. For many senior executives, consultants are still the preferred means to think about and design the future.

Consulting’s impact on employees

In my history, I’ve seen how consulting has been used in organizations, as an employee, a consultant and an observer. I sort the types of consulting into three levels of a pyramid:

Consulting stack

 

The bottom level is consulting around specific functions.  Towers Watson, for instance, focuses on HR and financial issues. This consulting is helpful in bringing new information to the employees in these functions. Consultants here see a lot of what works, and what doesn’t. With both their expertise and experience, they make people smarter in the core supporting functions of organizations.

The middle level is more about enablement across different groups. This consulting brings new philosophies and frameworks to employees. It enhances people’s ability to think about addressing the key strategic factors that impact the business. My own work consulting on crowdsourced innovation is one such example. Consulting firm Deloitte offers Lean Six Sigma consulting. This level of the consulting pyramid works in concert with what motivates employees and helps them be better in their jobs.

The top level is best characterized as strategy consulting. These firms (e.g. McKinsey) look at a company, its assets and its markets, and design a future path for the organization. This can include new markets to go after, expanding in existing markets, new products to offer and new business models. This is what I call Consultant-Led Innovation. It is actually really valuable, but can also result in demoralizing employees.

Do outsiders really know better?

I’ll relate my own experience here, see if it resonates with you. When I was at Pay By Touch, the CEO decided to bring in a well-known consulting firm. Their mandate was to examine the payments market and determine how Pay By Touch should tackle it. After doing their research and executive interviews, they came up with a strategy for pricing, and new products for a biometric wallet. I remember attending their presentation to a packed room of employees. The room was packed because it felt like the CEO was going to go with their recommendations, and people wanted to know what the consultants were thinking.

After seeing the presentation, the collective employee reaction? Meh. It suffered from two issues. First, it wasn’t anything that hadn’t been part of the discussion internally. Second, it had some fundamental flaws that people who’d been working on the edge of the evolving payment industry would have known. Unsurprisingly, their recommendations went to the shelf without further action.

But that experience always left me with a bad taste. Why didn’t the CEO call on his own people to do this strategic thinking? He’d hired smart people who knew credit cards, ACH, point-of-sale systems, etc. People who joined the company to change the way we pay. But instead of leveraging that, he brought in the consultants.

Outside consultants aren’t going to know your business – customers, markets, competitors, products – better than your employees.

Diverse perspectives and who is motivated most

I’ve written previously about how valuable cognitive diversity is. And the strategy consultants do add to that cognitive diversity. They have smart people who bring strong analytic perspectives to your business. The problem arises when their perspectives, their voices are the dominant basis of thinking for the C-Suite.

It’s an in-your-face dismissal of your “most valuable asset”, your employees.

Dilbert - employees are our most important asset

Via Dilbert.com

As I’ve described previously, the key to successfully engaging employees and having them help lead the company’s innovation is for senior executives to set a course forward and ensure that innovation obstacles don’t stifle progress. Strategy consultants actually can be useful here, in that they can help an executive crystallize thinking about the future. After that, enlightened organizations know their employees have the smarts, knowledge and motivation to work out the future. And better than some strategy inserted from outside, when employees help determine the organization’s future, their enthusiasm and energy will be critical to achieving the outcomes expected.

Don’t rely on consultant-led innovation. Make sure you’re building through the amazing cognitive diversity and energy of your employees.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter, and yes, I’m a Senior Consultant with HYPE Innovation.

 

Four categories of enterprise gamification

When you think of gamification, what are the common things that come to mind? Points, badges, leaderboards. These items are in the cognitive toolkit. But looking at the sheer variety of game mechanics, you can see that’s it’s a much broader field than that:

Game mechanics list

These 48 different mechanics (via SCVNGR and Badgeville) aren’t the complete list, but they provide a sense for the possibilities. However, the quantity of game mechanics makes its difficult to coherently analyze what, if any, means are relevant for an initiative. I found myself facing that in some work I was preparing for a client. My job-to-be-done? Provide an accessible way to understand the different gamification techniques relevant to crowdsourced innovation.

Having done some gamification work previously as a product manager, I called on that experience and various research on the topic. The following are the categories that made sense to me in the context of the enterprise environment:

Gamification categories

You might notice that I’ve couched the descriptive statement of each in the first person. That fits the approach to gamification, which is about motivations of individuals, what matters to each of us. Here’s a bit more about each.

Achievement: I work to attain an objective. This category calls on the desire many of us for mastery. To be well-versed and proficient in something. There is a sort of competition, but it’s against a standard, a benchmark. Not others.

Recognition: My contribution is acknowledged. Recognition is a form of feedback, an affirmation of one’s capabilities or position and a manifestation of status among peers. Recognition strikes me as the most powerful form of motivation.

Competition:  I compete for a limited number of awards. These gamification techniques appeal to the desire to compete. They can elevate people to moments of excellence in their participation (think of sports you’ve participated in previously). Powerful when used in an appropriate context.  But it’s a category that needs to be treated with care. Clumsy implementation of competition gamification can poison an initiative.

Valuables: I want to secure something of value. Valuables can address avoiding the loss of something or gaining something new. Valuables include the things you might expect: points-based rewards systems. But they can include countdowns to do something (I need to do something before I lose the opportunity), or competition to win funding for an idea, for example. Very useful, but Valuables need to be handled with care to avoid unintended consequences (e.g. high volumes of low value contributions; mindset that participation only happens when there’s a reward).

I’ve applied these different gamification categories to different innovation scenarios in my new post: The gamification framework for business innovation. I also look at the purpose of gamification there, some common misperceptions about it, and five key design principles.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter, and I’m a Senior Consultant with HYPE Innovation.

How deep does crowdsourced problem-solving go?

On the recent post, Why crowdsourcing works, Michael Fruhling of BFS Innovations asked:

A couple of related questions: for most current crowd sourced problem solving endeavors, how “deep” does the problem solving routinely go? And do the results meaningfully change if incentives are introduced?

It was a good, thoughtful question. I answered it in the comments there, and wanted to make the answer into its own blog post, below.


Tim O'Reilly tweet on crowdsourcingThe depth of the problem-solving in a crowdsourcing endeavor is wholly dependent on:

  • The question that is asked
  • The engagement of the question sponsor
  • Who is asked to participate
  • Why people would want to participate

A few points on each of those factors.

Question that is asked

As you can imagine, the question impacts the depth of problem-solving. In-depth question = in-depth problem-solving. The more specific the question, the better the quality of people’s contributions. “Specific” here doesn’t mean asking a tactical, low-level question. Rather, it means clearly delineating what is sought in a way that people can relate to .

Engagement of the question sponsor

Crowdsourcing works best (obviously?) when solving a specific problem that someone has. People will respond to the question with different concepts and questions. The feedback of the question asker (aka “sponsor”) provides the back-n-forth that breaks through initial responses to build a deeper response.

Who is asked to participate

Getting cognitive diversity is the key, as described in the post. But also, you want people who have some connection and interest in the question. Think holistically about that. Upstream, downstream, adjacent fields. Problem-solving depth requires matching a question with people who will give a damn.

Why people would want to participate

The question of “why” is closely related to the preceding question of “who”. If a question’s answer potentially affects a person, there is built-in motivation to participate: steer things in a way that makes sense to you. This works well for internal employee-based crowdsourcing. However, there are certainly questions where the personal impact may be less acute. Other incentives come in to play. Engagement with a sponsor – with attendant acknowledgments, thank you’s, feedback – are great incentives. Opportunities to see an idea through is a powerful stimulant. And prizes have great power. Prizes work best when they establish an opportunity to see an idea one is passionate about become real (e.g. investment funds). Or when the question is not one that directly impacts you. In such a case, they are compensation for putting your brainpower to work problem-solving.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter, and I’m a Senior Consultant with HYPE Innovation.

Why crowdsourcing works

CrowdCrowdsourcing is a method of solving problems through the distributed contributions of multiple people. It’s used to address tough problems that happen everyday. Ideas for new opportunities. Ways to solve problems. Uncovering an existing approach that addresses your need.

Time and again, crowdsourcing has been used successfully to solve challenges. But…why does it work? What’s the magic? What gives it an advantage over talking with your pals at work, or doing some brainstorming on your own? In a word: diversity. Cognitive diversity. Specifically these two principles:

  • Diverse inputs drive superior solutions
  • Cognitive diversity requires spanning gaps in social networks

These two principles work in tandem to deliver results.

Diverse inputs drive superior solutions

When trying to solve a challenge, what is the probability that any one person will have the best solution for it? It’s a simple mathematical reality: the odds of any single person providing the top answer are low.

How do we get around this? Partly by more participants; increased shots on goal. But even more important is diversity of thinking. People contributing based on their diverse cognitive toolkits:

Cognitive toolkit

As described by University of Michigan Professor Scott Page in The Difference, our cognitive toolkits consist of: different knowledge, perspectives and heuristics (problem-solving methods). Tapping into people’s cognitive toolkits brings fresh perspectives and novel approaches to solving a challenge. Indeed, a research study found that the probability of solving tough scientific challenges is three times higher if a person’s field of expertise is seven degrees outside the domain of the problem.

In another study, researchers analyzed the results of an online protein-folding game, Foldit.  Proteins fold themselves, but no one understands how they do so. This is particularly true of experts in the field of biochemistry. So the online game allows users to simulate it, with an eye towards better understanding the ways the proteins fold themselves. As reported by Andrew McAfee, the top players of Foldit were better than both computers and experts in the field at understanding the folding sequence. The surprising finding? None had taken chemistry beyond a high school course. It turns out spatial skills are more important to solve the problem than deep domain knowledge of proteins.

Those two examples provide real-world proof for the models and solution-seeking benefits of cognitive diversity described by Professor Page.

Solution landscape - cornstalksProblem solving can be thought of as building a solutions landscape, planted with different ideas. Each person achieves their local optimum, submitting the best idea they can for a given challenge based on their cognitive assets.

But here’s the rub: any one person’s idea is unlikely to be the best one that could be uncovered. This makes sense as both a probabilistic outcome, and based on our own experiences. However in aggregate, some ideas will stand out clearly from the rest. Cognitive diversity is the fertile ground where these best ideas will sprout.

In addition to being a source of novel ideas, cognitive diversity is incredibly valuable as feedback on others’ ideas. Ideas are improved as people contribute their distinct points of view. The initial idea is the seedling, and feedback provides the nutrients that allow it to grow.

Cognitive diversity requires spanning gaps in social networks

Cognitive diversity clearly has a significant positive effect on problem-solving. Generally when something has proven value to outcomes, companies adopt it as a key operating principle. Yet getting this diversity has not proven to be as easy and common as one might expect.

Why?

Strong weak no tiesBecause it’s dependent on human behavior. Left to our own devices, we tend to turn to our close connections for advice and feedback. These strong ties are the core of our day-in, day-out interactions.

But this natural human tendency to turn to our strong ties is why companies are challenged to leverage their cognitive diversity. University of Chicago Professor Ron Burt describes the issue as one of structural holes between nodes in a corporate social network in his paper, Structural Holes and Good Ideas (pdf). A structural hole is a gap between different groups in the organization. Information does not flow across structural holes.

In and of themselves, structural holes are not the problem. Rather, the issue is that when people operate primarily within their own node, their information sources are redundant. Over time, the people in the node know the same facts, develop the same assumptions and optimize to work together in harmony. Sort of like a silo of social ties.

Idea quality vs diversity of connectionsThe impact of this is a severe curtailment of fresh thinking, which impacts the quality of ideas. Professor Burt found empirical evidence for this in a study of Raytheon’s Supply Chain Group. 673 employees were characterized by their social network connections, plotting them on a spectrum from insular to diverse. These employees then provided one idea to improve supply chain management at Raytheon. Their ideas were then assessed by two senior executives.

The results? Employees with more diverse social connections provided higher quality ideas. To the right is a graph of the rated ideas, with a curve based on the average idea ratings versus the submitter’s level of network diversity. The curve shows that with each increase in the diversity of a person’s connections, the higher the value of their idea.

Employees with access to diverse sources of information provided better ideas.  Their access to nonredundant information allowed them to generate more novel, higher potential ideas. Inside organizations, there are employees who excel at making diverse connections across the organization. These people are the ones who will provide better ideas. They are brokers across the structural holes in social networks.

Professor Burt provides the key insight about these brokers:

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 genius; it is creativity as an import-export business. An idea mundane in one group can be a valuable insight in another.

An “import-export business”. Consider that for a moment. It’s a metaphor that well describes the key value of the brokers. They are exchange mechanisms for cognitive diversity. They are incredibly valuable to moving things forward inside organizations. But are organizations overly dependent on these super-connectors? Yes. Companies are leaving millions on the table by not enabling a more scalable, comprehensive and efficient means for exchanges of cognitive diversity.

Would if we could systematize what the most connected employees do?

Systematize the diverse connections

Crowdsourcing doesn’t eliminate the need for the super-connectors. They play a number of valuable roles inside organizations. But by crowdsourcing to solve problems, companies gain the following:

  • Deeper reach into the cognitive assets of all employees
  • Avoiding the strong ties trap of problem-solving
  • Faster surfacing of the best insights
  • Neutralize the biases that the super-connectors naturally have

As you consider ways to improve your decision-making and to foster greater cross-organizational collaboration, make crowdsourcing a key element of your strategic approach.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter, and I’m a Senior Consultant with HYPE Innovation.

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