Success depends on who we work with

Here’s a description from Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives, in which sociologist, Brian Uzzi, describes how creative teams (musical productions) function:

Uzzi found that teams made up of individuals who had never before worked together fared poorly, greatly increasing the chance of a flop. These networks were not well connected and contained mostly weak ties. At the other extreme, groups made up of individuals who had all worked together previously also tended to create musicals that were unsuccessful. Because these groups lacked creative input from the outside, they tended to rehash the same ideas that they used the first time they worked together. In between, however, Uzzi once again found a sweet spot that combines the diversity of new team members with the stability of previously formed relationship. The networks that best exhibited the small-world property were those that had the greatest success.

Production company networks with a mix of weak and strong ties allowed easy communication but also fostered greater creativity because of the ideas of new members of the group and the synergies they created. Thus, the structure of the network appears to have a strong effect on both financial and critical success.

As the need for creativity in the workplace increases, organizations should give some serious thought to the structure of work groups and networks. As Gary Hamel described at the Spigit Customer Summit, traditional (industrial) employee traits of Intellect, Diligence & Obedience are becoming commodities (going to the lowest bidder?). The Creative Economy requires more independent workers (like musical productions?) with the following traits that can not be commoditized:

  • Initiative
  • Creativity
  • Passion

It seems that successful creative work groups need to be just cohesive enough with some additional “friction” from new members in order to keep the passion and creativity flowing. This brings into question the rationale for practices such as:

Mass training with standard performance objectives for everyone

Predominantly full-time, salaried employment (few options for part-time work at the control of the worker)

Standard HR policies

Banning access to online social networks at work

With working life in perpetual beta, it’s time to re-think not just how we work, but with whom we work.

6 Responses to “Success depends on who we work with”

  1. Barbara Ganley

    Thanks, Harold, for this fine post crystallizing some of your evolving thinking on successful working groups and collaborations.

    The knife edge within the workplace between innovation and continuity creates a push-pull mentality of “Do something new but do it our way, i.e. as it’s always been done.” As Clay Shirky reminds us in “Here Comes Everybody”: “The systemic bias for continuity creates tolerance for the substandard.” And Nabokov points out that “Curiosity is subordination in its purest form.”

    I find Vera John-Steiner’s work on creative collaborations quite helpful because she not only speaks to the need for a flow of new ideas into the mix, but to the all-too elusive combination of “sustained time and effort. [Successful creative collaboration] requires the shaping of a shared language, the pleasures and risks of honest dialogue, and the search for a common ground.” I think the words “risks” and “search” are crucial, for they imply an ongoing friction of which you speak that does indeed spark creativity, passion and curiosity.


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