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Leadership

The Unexpected Way To Use Your Social Network Strategically

If it’s a clear night tonight, go outside about 9 p.m. and look west at the two brightest stars, beautiful as jewels, one above the other. Low to the horizon will be the planet Venus, the "evening star," just beginning to set. Above Venus is the planet Jupiter, the gas giant with more than 60 known moons (and still counting). Now turn around and face east. Coming up off the horizon you’ll see another jewel, this one quite reddish; that’s Mars, the Red Planet (two tiny moons). On March 3 this year, our Earth (one giant moon) will pass closest to Mars, overtaking it in our orbital race around the Sun.

The solar system is a network of planets, each of which has its own network of moons, so it provides a picturesque (if inexact) analogy for social networks, which are also networks of networks. Everyone seems to be on the social media bandwagon now, with the most enthusiastic advocates often competing to build up their networks of Twitter followers, Facebook friends, or LinkedIn connections.  

But rather than counting how many moons you have in your network, what you ought to be doing is figuring out how to get the most benefit from the right ones. And despite the hype, my own informal canvassing has convinced me that most of us aren’t very strategic when it comes to the best way to take advantage of the enormous potential of our own social networks. 

Suppose, for instance, you want to find a new career. Maybe you’ve recently had a job shot out from under you. Or perhaps you just think you can do better. Everyone knows, of course, that networking is the best way to find out about job openings and career opportunities (as well as most other business opportunities), but is there a smart way to use your network?

Yes there is, and most people aren’t conscious of it. Almost 30 years ago, a landmark study showed conclusively that the best leads for job opportunities are more likely to come from your more distant colleagues and friends, as opposed to your closest ones. This isn’t because your close friends don’t give you good recommendations, but because you and your other close friends are more likely already to know about the same job openings, while the job openings known to your more distant colleagues—those with whom you don’t interact very often—are not as likely to be known to your own friends, or to you. 

This principle, known as the "strength of weak ties," has other strategic applications as well. Two venture capitalists have found, for instance, that investing firms that share information with others regarding potential investment prospects tend to gain access to a wider network of candidates—essentially leveraging their weak network ties, rather than focusing solely on strong ties. They also cite another recent study by other academics that shows VC firms concentrated in the traditional tech centers (Silicon Valley, New York, Boston) do better than other firms primarily because they "cast a wide, public net," harvesting the results of their weak ties.

Or consider the question of generating new business in the B2B space, or with regard to expensive, considered purchases. If you use a straight-ahead business-development plan, you’ll develop a laundry list of leads and opportunities to be followed up. While this can be useful, the truth is that a great deal of such business comes in via the referral of others. And how can you increase your access to such referrals? You guessed it—by concentrating on your weak ties, rather than on your strong ties. By developing your own network of industry colleagues and blog or Twitter followers, for instance, you get access to their connections with others. And one of my favorite strategies for B2B competitors is to prepare PowerPoint decks about the benefits of the firm, and then make those decks freely available on your own Website for download and unlimited use. However, this isn’t a tool for persuading the people who come to your site to buy, but for helping them to persuade others within their firm. In effect, you are arming these weak-tie prospects with the tools necessary to appeal to their own networks.   

And of course, the power of weak ties can hardly be overstated when it comes to generating creative or innovative ideas. All new ideas come from combining previous ideas and concepts. This is one reason why a group of people with completely independent ideas is likely to come to a better, more creative, or predictive conclusion than any single one of them acting alone, even the smartest member of the group. In essence, ideas and innovations themselves exist in a kind of network, with some ideas connected to others, clusters of ideas within other clusters, and so forth. Your best new ideas, and a company’s most breakthrough innovations, will come when you tap your weak ties by interacting with the disciplines you know less about, or the experts you rarely consult, or the people you associate with less frequently.

By contrast, the surest way NOT to have a creative breakthrough is to rely on all the experts you already know, and all the disciplines you’re already familiar with. One study of entrepreneurs showed they are more likely to have "deliberately exposed themselves to different sources of information, by striking up conversations on trains, for example, or maintaining a diverse range of acquaintances, to increase the odds of stumbling upon an interesting opportunity."

Finally, even if all you’re trying to do is to advance your own career at whatever firm you’re working for, the "weak ties" argument will help you better appreciate which other executives you should be trying to add to your network. It’s long been thought that the best way to get ahead is to hitch your wagon to a senior star, but a University of Chicago business school professor’s book, Neighbor Networks, has debunked this myth. A summary of Prof. Ronald S. Burt’s book suggests "There is no advantage at all to having well-connected friends." Instead, it is the managers who do the connecting that tend to earn demonstrably higher salaries. This is not because they become linchpins or hubs or gateways to power and information, per se, but rather because managers who maintain contacts in a diverse range of departments are getting a very healthy and intellectually stimulating "exposure to diverse ideas and behaviors." According to Burt, "the way networks have their effect is not by getting information from people, but rather by finding people who are interesting and who think differently from you," adding that it isn’t being in the know, "but rather having to translate between different groups so that you develop gifts of analogy, metaphor, and communicating between people who have difficulty communicating to each other." 

So whether you’re interested in a better job, more business clients, or simply more creative ideas, it makes sense to think more strategically about how your network operates, and how you can better operate within it. If you want to be successful, you need to strategize how to make better connections with groups you don’t know much about, or how to craft analogies by combining different disciplines—business success and astronomy, for example.

[Image: Flickr user Carl Jones]