At some point, you’ve probably stopped to think about someone you know, “Wow, she has very good ideas.”  Since ideas are expressed to us by an individual, it seems natural to recognize this person for their views and by extension their achievements.  It is however, helpful to take a step back and reflect upon the network behind the emergence of ideas.

Steven Johnson makes this point in his Ted talk, Where Good Ideas Come From, when he says that an idea is a network.  From a neurological perspective, it is the firing of neurons in a new configuration just as in the outside world it mimics the stitching together of different things we have learned into something new. Via a collection of stories of innovation, he concludes “Chance favors the connect mind.”

However not all connections are equal.  I recently picked up Alex Petland’s book, Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons From A New Science and he categorizes two types of connections, inward and outward facing.  When teammates interact with each other they strengthen engagement, whereas when they interact with other teams this strengthens exploration. This categorization is very similar to Robert Putnam’s terms of bonding and bridging social capital (for further explanation see the Harvard Kennedy School Saguaro Seminar’s social capital glossary)

Through his research with companies, Petland has shown that informal face-to-face engagement is the single largest factor on productivity.  In an intervention with call centers at Bank of America his proposal to change the breaks so that employees on the same team could take breaks together resulted in a $15 million per year productivity increase.  While they had thought that the routine and standardized nature of the work at a call center meant there was little employees could learn from each other, it turned out that the peer to peer advice they gave each other during those breaks led to a sharp drop in the average call handle time.

In another study of a German bank, Petland had employees wear sociometric badges and also monitored email traffic and discovered that that while inward facing connections increase productivity outward facing connections improve creativity.  Much more than the words exchanged, the patterns of communication are the strongest predictor of success.  Rather than a single aha moment, Petland focuses on these patterns, what he calls idea flow.

For a brief overview of Petlands recent work overview, see his Tedx video: Social Physics – How Social Networks Make Us Smarter.


* The header image above was adapted from an image in Alex Petland’s book Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons From A New Science.

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