Your Secret Weapon to Turn Change Into Opportunity
“There is no such thing as a new idea” - Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
Taken cynically, Mark Twain’s apparent condemnation of the human capacity for originality disheartens the reader. If there are no new ideas to be had, what future does humanity have?
A pretty good one, actually. Our distinctly human trait (other than our opposable thumbs) is the ability to share substantive knowledge with one another directly and across generations (hooray for the printing press!). The incremental understanding and application of concepts means that we live in blissful and nearly infinite possibility. Realizing that infinite possibility is critically reliant on a robust network.
Unlocking possibility requires inspiration and integration. Inspiration comes in many flavors. Often it arrives in the form of a bottleneck or barrier that becomes just bad enough for someone to feel compelled to overcome it. In the 1970s, as the price of fuel spiked, NASA aeronautical engineer Dr. Richard Whitcomb sought a novel way to decrease fuel consumption on airplanes inspired by huge oil price increases. He dug out a concept from the 1800s - winglets (relatively small, thin metal pieces standing straight up at the end of a wing). The result of employing a concept (that was clearly not “original”) resulted in a 6-9% gain in fuel economy and commensurate cost savings. The originality of the idea mattered less than applying the concept. Winglets are now ubiquitous on all manner of aircraft.
Integration requires the connection of seemingly disparate concepts. The connection of these concepts can be entirely accidental (see Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups ads from the 80s), but recognition that these concepts can work together is the true key. In fact, something that does its desired job poorly (like a glue designed by 3M scientist Dr. Spencer Silver) needed someone seeking a sticky bookmark to realize the value of this innovation and bring us the ubiquitous Post-it Note.
How should we realize this world of possibility?
The starting place is maximizing inspiration and integration. First, mindset is key. I’ve written in the past on the need for leaders to conceive of one their roles as Chief Dot Connector. Actively assuming this mantle creates a new lens to identify possibility - every change now presents opportunity.
Second, to uncover inspiration and integrate ideas, seeking knowledge and experience is critical. A strong network supercharges the sharing of knowledge and experience. There are three drivers of network capability:
Node Quality - With a telephone network, the quality of the connection is reliant on each individual telephone having some baseline capability. In a human network, quality is reliant on an individual person’s valuable skill or knowledge and the ability to communicate that skill or experience.
Ease of connecting - The right node existing in a network is meaningless without knowing where or how to seek the information or resources you need. Sticking with our phone example, phone books (and now the internet) made it possible to determine who you should call when you need something.
Propensity for connection - In the age of caller ID, you can decide if you want to pick up a call or not. Members of a network must be receptive to the outreach from another member for a connection to be made.
Optimizing the network
We designed AFN and our roundtables to focus on these three characteristics of network capability.
First, participants and their companies are evaluated to ensure they complement the knowledge sets and experiences of other participants. We have built the network to ensure exposure to diversity across many dimensions (geography, industry, experience, expertise, etc.).
Second, we work to understand and capture the industry, experience, and areas of interest for each participant and provide a forum and technology to ensure they can share that information with other members of the network.
Finally, our roundtables and other events enable participants to share an experience and learn from one another. This common experience lowers barriers to connecting beyond that experience and increases the likelihood individual members of the community will eagerly seek each other out in the future.
With a strong network, original ideas are not of consequence. The network offers access and the ability to combine concepts and apply them against emergent opportunities. With a strong, diverse network you can “know what you don’t know” and think of all new approaches to the opportunities around you. We invite you to join us and have your network be an even better secret weapon in finding advantage.
About Matt Sitter
Matt Sitter is CEO of the Advantage Foundry Network (AFN) and leads Advantary’s Executive Capital Practice. He is passionate about optimizing team collaboration and harnessing the power of networks. Matt has served on multiple executive management teams and is an ICF credentialed executive coach. He received his BA from Brown University and MBA from the Tuck School at Dartmouth.