Building Creative Collaboration

by Greg Satell

Building Creative CollaborationCreativity is changing.  Not so long ago, it seemed like a “man on the mountain” approach could suffice.  All you needed was a great idea and then get people to rally around it to make it happen (or so many thought).

To whatever extent that was ever true, it certainly seems to be getting less so.  Due partly to a change in zeitgeist and partly to greater integration and complexity in business life, we’re working more in teams.  So the question is:  What makes some teams better than others?

Research into social networks has begun to shed some light on that question and is coming up with some sensible answers that have important practical implications.

So What’s It Take To Make It On Broadway?

Wouldn’t it be cool to have your own Broadway play?  You could have your name in lights and hobnob with the jet set.  You’d get invited to all the best parties and be the envy of all your friends.

Of course, most productions lose money and you don’t want that.  So the point is not just to have a play, but to have a successful one.  That’s easier said than done.  The public’s tastes are fickle and competition is stiff.  How can you determine beforehand whether your play is likely to be a hit or a flop?

There are lots of variables.  For instance, economic conditions, production budgets and track record of the director will all play a role.  However, in a highly cited study, researchers Brian Uzzi and Jarrett Spiro found that how social networks are structured has a lot to do with the outcome.

Social Network Basics

All social networks are different.  Some are tightly clustered and everybody seems to know each other.  Others have broad reach and you can connect to people far away through just a few contacts.  How a network is structured will greatly affect how information flows within it.

Network theorists have learned a lot about what drives social networks and have come up with three basic metrics that give you a pretty good idea how a network will behave.

Path Lengths: This is the average number of links you need to get from one person in the network to another.  For instance, in Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment, he found an average of six degrees of separation in the population of the United States.

Clustering Coefficient: Of course, we don’t often meet people randomly.  We tend to consort with those we work with, live near and know people that we know.  Not surprisingly, networks build links over time and thus become more clustered.

We can calculate how clustered a network is by simply dividing the number of links in a network by the total number of links possible (n(n-1)/2).

Small World Quotient “Q”: The interesting cases are so-called small world networks, where there is relatively high clustering and short path lengths.  We can combine the clustering coefficients and path lengths measure to come up with a metric called “Q.”

Networks with a Q of over 1.0 are considered to be small world networks with a nice, homey feel, but broad reach.

Get Yourself Some “Q”  (but not too much)

When Uzzi and Spiro looked into Broadway plays, they came across something interesting.  It was important for the people working on the play to have worked together before and therefore exhibit some clustering, but if they were too inbred both financial performance and reviews began to falter.

This effect is clearly visible in the graphs shown below.  As Q rises, the pr0bability of both financial and critical success increases…up to a point.

Building Creative CollaborationOnce you think about it a bit, this makes sense.  When people work together for the first time, everything is a bit chaotic and it’s hard to collaborate effectively.  However, when people work together too much, group think sets in and innovation stops.  You need a little spice in the soup.

Interestingly, Uzzi and Spiro found that Q explained success better than any other factor.  More than production budgets, economic conditions, track record of success, etc.

Managing Past the Dunbar Number

Robin Dunbar made himself famous by estimating the number of people that are able to maintain stable relationships is about 150.  Other have estimated it higher, but not by much.

What’s clear is that companies change as they grow.  As they get bigger, information doesn’t flow as naturally.  Formal meetings begin to take precedence over impromptu discussions in the hallway and office pop-ins.   Rules take precedence over informal norms and the workplace starts taking on a more institutional feel.

In my experience, this starts happening in companies somewhat larger that 150.  After all, some employees are support staff and not everybody in the company needs to maintain stable relationships at any given time.  If I had to guess, I would say things really start changing somewhere between 200 and 400 people.

In any case, once a business starts growing far beyond the Dunbar number, you have to start changing the way you think about managing.  Connections between people don’t occur naturally anymore, inner “cliques” form that alienate newcomers and information flow tends to get stuck in pockets.

Keeping Teams Fresh

Building Creative Collaboration

Getting people to collaborate is obviously a key success factor in any business. Through the years, I’ve found three practices to be helpful in keeping “Q” in the range where people can work together effectively but don’t fall into a rut:

Training programs: Besides the obvious knowledge transfer function of training, one often overlooked benefit is that it gets people to meet those they normally wouldn’t.

Generalized graduate training programs can be especially helpful in this regard.  After the training is completed, new hires go to different parts of the company but maintain ties to their training class.

Best Practice Programs: Holding monthly meetings across departments for people to show off their best work not only encourages good work, but helps people to mix and develop relationships across the organization.

Forced Switching: Another, more difficult, practice is to force people to switch departments and functions.  This often encounters resistance because managers are inclined to want to “protect their team” and people like to stay where they are comfortable.

However, people adjust faster than you would think and the disruption is considerably less than a full scale reorganization.

I’m sure others out there have come across their own strategies for building collaborative teams.  I would love to hear about them in the comments.

image credit: bigthink & manchestergrad

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5 Principles of InnovationGreg Satell a consultant who concentrates on media, marketing and innovation. Check out at his site, Digital Tonto and follow him on twitter @digitaltonto

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