David’s Core Ideas

“Innovators get new things done by bridging people and networks.”

Core Idea #1: In a world of accelerating change, social brokers who connect people and organizations lead the way.

 Social brokers create connections with other people in their network or organization. These social brokers respond to challenges and disruptive forces that surround their organization. 

In response to challenges and opportunities, social brokers connect people and ideas within and outside their organizations.  They are entrepreneurs who assemble people into clusters of collaboration that become the next new startup, product, or social movement. In the process, they also create new and more inclusive networks and new forms of community.

Social brokering is an activity anyone can do, meaning anyone has the potential to be a creator. 

What do social brokers do? Introduce two people who have a common interest. Bring several people together on a Zoom meeting to discuss the potential for a new project. At that meeting, present a startling new idea imported from another industry that no one attending had ever considered before.  Later, connect new people to expand the core group of collaborators – while keeping unproductive others at arm’s length – in order to move the creative project forward.

The people who orchestrate networks by making connections now lead the world. They drive organizations forward both from the front lines and from the executive suite. Given the distributed, knowledge-intensive, and rapidly evolving contexts that organizations must navigate to innovate, brokers who link people and organizations while moving knowledge among them become more indispensable every day. 

My innovation research and consulting on these brokers has been cited over 2000 times, because it explains cutting edge developments in innovation, creativity, leadership, how organizations adapt to disruptive change, entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial ecosystems, venture capital, and supply chain management. It has even been applied to urban school reform, social media impact, blockchain adoption, and terrorism prevention.

Core Idea #2: Whether at the cutting edge, or at the center of an organization, innovation unfolds through creative projects driven by social brokers.

Based on my research, I define all new things worth doing as, in their essence, creative projects. A company rolls out a radically new design and manufacturing process that incorporates unproven new technology. Two firms form a partnership in an emerging market. An entrepreneur initiates a new business venture with a disparate set of founders. An artist unleashes a new Broadway musical that crosses multiple genres.  We may call these ventures by different names, and they may evolve in different ways, but at the center of all such initiatives is an individual, group, or organization ready to navigate the social challenges and opportunities while forging a path that brings a new idea into the world.

What I have found through my research – on topics from automotive design to Broadway musicals – is that innovators who drive creative projects follow a similar pattern. They: 

  1. Forge their creative project goal. Out of a stream of potential opportunities, innovators locate the singular idea that motivates and guides their next collaborative steps  
  2. Act as a broker. Innovators occupy the white space between other people, propelling action by orchestrating networks. They pull together the right combination of people, knowledge, and resources repeatedly over time.  My research explains the three core network processes that makes projects take flight. 
  3. Translate continuously. Innovators continually appeal to and mobilize the diverse interests of all the actors involved, leveraging analogies, metaphors and stories to enlist and engage crucial stakeholders.
  4. Manage their own inner game. Innovators couple outer action with inner discipline. The best cultivate focus, passion, and resilience in response to rejection, setbacks, and ambiguity throughout the inevitable twists and turns of an advancing project. That takes works.
  5. Create organizations, departments, and startups capable of generating round after round of follow-on creative projects. Innovators structure communities that foster systematic access to new ideas, stimulate the recombination of ideas, and openly foster dynamic collaboration at every level of the organization.  

Core Idea #3: Innovators and entrepreneurs make common but avoidable mistakes.

Each of the steps I’ve described involves learnable, teachable skills. Along this predictably unpredictable path, innovators must watch out for these missteps:

  • They ruminate creatively, but never crystallize the goal that will help them break from the ordinary and the routine.  
  • They take networks for granted, passively receiving easily available opportunities and ideas rather than being selective … or they mindlessly pursue connections without a specific goal in mind. They overlook the need to scan interlocking networks, reach out socially, and orchestrate network action as necessary to get new things done.
  • They step back from opportunity when they feel unconfident, lacking the capacity to actively overcome negative voices, and perceived or actual rejections.
  • They tell only one story rather than actively translating their core ideas for different audiences, factoring differences in age, profession, personality, attention, and perspective. 
  • They fail to anticipate the long and winding road that includes surprises and setbacks as a pathway to success … and they fail to continually recreate their story as circumstances change.
  • Senior executives often forget that innovation cannot come solely, or even often, from the top but relies on brokers and creators throughout the organizations that orchestrate networks and projects. They overlook as inefficient the need to sponsor, coach, and structure events for the next generation of network entrepreneurs who move ideas and make projects happen.

These obstacles are universally present on the road to introducing something new into the world. The key is anticipating them and having a strategy ready to address them before they derail creative ideas. 

Core Idea #4: Social Brokers Drive Innovation with Three Interlocking Moves – Linking, Conduit, and Separating Brokerage

What actions does a creative leader engage in, whether their creative project is in business, entrepreneurship, or art? There are three crucial moves for the social broker: 1) Linking or connecting; 2) Conduit or moving ideas; and, interestingly, 3) Separating, or keeping certain people apart. Research citing my work, for example, found that Nashville music producers that use three interlocking networking moves excelled in the creative process (Long Lingo and O’Mahoney, 2010).

Innovators/Entrepreneurs orchestrate three brokerage practices:

  1. Linking. The social broker’s master skill involves connecting the right people within and across networks. The social broker links people and organizations in constellations of support for a creative project. To accomplish that, the broker must help forge common ground and ultimately an agreement, for example, between two different departments or organizations. That linking work may expand to include additional parties until the broker has established a critical mass of support across multiple departments. This involves skillful calculation regarding which are the most promising parties to connect first, in tandem with translating the opportunity into a form that increases comprehension and receptivity.
  2. Conduit (or Moving Ideas) On a basic level the broker discovers and moves knowledge — for example, from Department A to Department B, or from World A to World B—across a division, company, or the planet. The broker discovers new knowledge by creating new connections and exploring new worlds. When moving that knowledge, the broker often must translate the ideas she is moving. One translation might be simplifying the idea so it can be quickly comprehended. Another form of translation might be repositioning the idea so that it has maximum appeal for a new audience.
  3. Separating. As a matchmaker, the broker may also tactically choose to keep people apart. Not all stakeholders should be linked to a new idea or project or linked together at the same time. Some stakeholders are better suited for immediate inclusion given their anticipated receptivity and partnership in developing the project. Moreover, some people or departments might be resolutely opposed to the new innovation and might be best kept out of the loop to protect the fledgling innovation. Other stakeholders will contribute more if they’re brought in later in the process. A senior executive might be kept “away” from the idea until several key stakeholders have signed on to and validated the idea. When a critical mass of support is reached, then the senior executive is looped in. In one study, Nashville music producers deliberately kept a studio musician away from the lead artist when they wanted the star to maintain his focus on his creative process.

When innovators and entrepreneurs draw on and sequence the three network moves – as the Nashville music producers did — they excel.

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