Innovation through the strength of weak ties

In the late nineties, a Stanford Business School professor named Martin Ruef decided to investigate the relationship between business innovation and diversity. Ruef was interested in the coffeehouse model of diversity, not the “melting pot” political kind: the diversity of professions and disciplines, not of race or sexual orientation. Ruef interviewed 766 graduates of the school who had gone on to have entrepreneurial careers. He created an elaborate system for scoring innovation based on a combination of factors: the introduction of new products, say, or the filing of trademarks and patents. And then he tracked each graduate’s social network – not just the number of acquaintances but the kind of acquaintances they had. Some graduates had large social networks that were clustered within their organization; others had small insular groups dominated by friends and family. Some had wide-ranging connections with acquaintances outside their inner circle of friends and colleagues. 

What Ruef discovered was a ringing endorsement of the coffeehouse model of social networking: the most creative individuals in Ruef’s survey consistently had broad social networks that extended outside their organization and involved people from diverse fields of expertise. Diverse, horizontal social networks, in Ruef’s analysis, were three times more innovative than uniform, vertical networks. In groups united by shared values and long-term familiarity, conformity and convention tended to dampen any potential creative sparks. The limited reach of the network meant that interesting concepts from the outside rarely entered the entrepreneur’s consciousness. But the entrepreneurs who built bridges outside their “islands,” as Ruef called them, were able to borrow or co-opt new ideas from these external environments and put them to use in a new context. A similar study, conducted by a University of Chicago business school professor named Ronald Burt, looked at the origin of good ideas inside the organizational network of the Raytheon Corporation. Burt found that innovative thinking was much more likely to emerge from individuals who bridged “structural holes” between tightly knit clusters. Employees who primarily shared information with people in their own division had a harder time coming up with useful suggestions for Raytheon’s business, when measured against employees who maintained active links to a more diverse group.

To a certain extent, Ruef’s and Burt’s research is a validation of the celebrated “strength of weak ties” argument first proposed by Mark Granovetter, and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point. But looking at the weak ties of an extended social network through the lens of exaptation changes the picture in an important way: it is not merely that weak ties allow information to travel throughout a network more efficiently – that is, without becoming trapped on the remote island of a close-knit group. From the perspective of innovation, it’s even more important that the information arriving from one of those weak ties is coming from a different context, what the innovation scholar Richard Ogle calls an “idea-space_ – complex of tools, beliefs, metaphors, and objects of study. A new technology developed in one idea-space can migrate over to another idea-space through these long-distance connections; in that new environment, the technology may turn out to have unanticipated properties, or may trigger a connection that leads to a new breakthrough. The value of the weak tie lies not just in the speed with which it transmits information across a network: it also promotes the exaptation of those ideas. Gutenberg was trained as a metallurgist, but he had weak ties to the vintners of Rhineland Germany. Without that link, he would have been merely a pioneering typesetter, making an incremental improvement on Pi Sheng’s movable type. By not restricting himself exclusively to the island of metallurgy, he became something much more important: a printer.

From “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Johnson