Embracing Corporate Peripheries: Innovation Thrives in Your Weak-Links

Co-Authored by Dr. Anja Schmitz, Professor of Human Resource Management, Pforzheim Business School, University of Applied Sciences, Pforzheim, Germany

Each year corporations invest millions, indeed billions, in R&R, mergers and acquisitions seeking blockbuster innovations that will hopefully fill their pipelines with rich long-term rewards. Very often executives, hungry for successes, pay millions to consultancies, put enormous pressure on their employees to produce results, or take over other firms in search of that essential but elusive driver of capitalism: innovation.

Ironically, however, these very corporations could make – and save – millions by simply listening to and promoting disruptively creative individuals either deep inside their own organizations or residing at the periphery of their networks. That is, if they made use of a concept first introduced in 1973 by Stanford University’s Professor Mark Granovetter: the concept of “weak ties.”

What is a weak tie or what we refer to as a “Weak-Link?” These are the nerds, freaks, free-thinkers, weirdos, rebels, oddities, outsiders, punks, internal entrepreneurs and uncool people who reside at the outer reaches of most executives’ networks. In our work, we see these hidden treasures as akin to an apparently ill-fitting or “weak” link in managers’ networking chains.

Networking within and outside of organizations is an essential success factor of business. Humans have a powerful, often subliminal and primordial urge to connect with people similar to themselves, automatically distrusting and excluding those unlike them. Thus, most managers network with people just like themselves: those occupying the same occupational, educational and status levels. Likewise, employees tend to network with those from the same field: IT people with IT people, engineers with engineers, Sales people with other Sales people, etc. This produces lots of cozy coffee corner chats, great lunches and dinners and shared synergies but virtually zero breakthroughs in the mind-set or innovative behavior managers claim to be looking for to grow their business.

Paradoxically, while management and staff feel most comfortable with those who act, speak and look like themselves, research shows that true innovation and revolutionary corporate thought tends to occur at the periphery of networks, departments and organizations, via the exotic and little-recognized Weak-Links who occupy the outer rings of organizational networks (See: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0263237311000430).

In order to promote and profit from these Weak-Link innovation drivers, managers have to first of all enhance their own self-perception and self-awareness so that they can lower their status barriers to allow their talented and free-thinking corporate outsiders into their inner circles.

Furthermore, executives have to promote and maintain the existence of quality collaborative networks within their teams, departments and companies. To tap into and benefit from true innovative energy and creativity, they must reach out to, welcome, embrace, include, praise and stand by and support their Weak-Links.

Managers must realize and accept that game-changing innovation does not come from their comfortable circle of like-minded peers at the golf course, five-star hotel lounge or elite MBA courses, nor from those they know well and agree with, but from the uncomfortable and often annoying dwellers on their outer edges of their professional and social circles.

The great hindrance in achieving true innovation is that managers are overwhelmed – and measured by – how they produce task-oriented, operational results under enormous time and budget pressure, as well as how they fulfill the expectations of Board members and shareholders. Their challenge is to cross individual and corporate boundaries – to take the risk of believing in and supporting their Weak-Links.

Savvy managers must ask themselves, “Are we using our networks in the right way?” “What is my pro-active role in this?” “With whom am I networking, and why?” “Who should I reach out to right now to drive innovation?” and finally, “In my network chain, who have I mistakenly disregarded as a Weak-Link and what potential innovations am I missing out on?”

Innovation does not happen in silos. It is not produced by plush, non-threatening and comfortable Old Boy’s networks. Innovation occurs when managers boldly move from the transactional to the transformational. When they support, promote – and provide budget for – those they have formally ignored or even shunned. Innovation percolates in diverse environments. Management has the tools to enhance and profit from the creative energies of innovation; now they must fearlessly and sincerely embrace, accept, listen to, utilize and reward their Weak-Links.

We have created an easy-to-implement take-home on this critical issue:

The Savvy Manager’s Networking Check List:

· Ensure that your network provides sufficient exposure to different thought–worlds. Innovation-generating networks provide access to people located in disparate corporate divisions and sub-divisions, beyond your own department -- and especially at the outer rings of your social circles.

· Heed the size of your network: bigger does not necessarily mean better. The benefits of the size of your network follow an inverted U-shape: find out what your optimum number of ties is - where the costs do not exceed the rewards.

· Know yourself: Your personality type is a vital part of building networks. If you are naturally open to and curious about those different from you, it will be easier for you to identify and take advantage of the insights and fresh perspectives offered by your Weak-Links. If openness is not one of your strengths, it would be wise to seek out a coach to develop approaches and suitable work-arounds that fit your strength profile.

· Confirm that your management systems and Human Resource interventions (leadership development programs, career coaching sessions, etc.) support the inclusion of Weak-Links and that all-important access to different thought-worlds.

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