How valuable are all those weak ties in our social networks? Current research and opinion continues to affirm the strength of weak ties, and many point to the use of social media in the Arab Spring as the power of the extended network. Recent academic research demonstrated the power of weak ties over strong ties, and emerging social network analysis services are showing that some organizations feel strongly enough about these relationships to invest money in analyzing them.
The problem is that while social networking tools like LinkedIn and Twitter have allowed us to build large professional networks, our weak ties really aren't that weak. The ability to connect with 500+ connections or amass thousands of followers masks the classic "birds of a feather, flock together" phenomenon playing out on a massive scale. While technology has allowed us to exceed the 150 or so people Dunbar suggested as the limit with whom we can maintain social relationships, network size does not equate with diversity, and most of the weak ties in our professional networks are people who share our interests or work in similar professions or industries. The tools themselves promote these proximate relationships, with more visibility and ability to connect (via introductions and retweets) with similar connections of connections.
And while there's value in traditional weak ties (they are great for generating awareness and building advocacy), there's a lot to be gained farther out, beyond the weak, and at the edge. Saul Kaplan, innovator and author of The Business Model Innovation Factory, calls such connections "collisions of unusual suspects" that engender new ideas and perspectives. These edge ties buttress our strategic networks and "drive change" and disruption.
If innovation tends to occur at the edges of networks, how can you cultivate more edge ties?
Connect with more people outside of your industry and field. Attend local events or conferences aimed at an industry or profession with which you're unfamiliar. It's true that you'd be a neophyte in the subject matter and wouldn't know anyone going in, but the fresh perspectives and different methodologies would more than make up for any initial discomfort. Imagine discovering a new technology-enabled process used in bioinformatics and recasting it to improve your corporate culture. Or learning about innovations in IT from a technology professional and realizing you could apply them in your law practice.
If you're not inclined to venture that far to the edge, attend an event in your field that emphasizes non-industry speakers or try a conference featuring a range of topics and speakers. For example, one upcoming summit promises to be "an industry event with no industry speakers" while another gathers storytellers to reflect upon their personal journeys of innovation and transformation.
Webinars and Webcasts. When you're unable to attend events in person, tune in to webinars and streamed events focusing on subjects you know very little or nothing about. Follow the event conversations and chat in Twitter and try and connect with fellow participants.
Connect with Someone New on LinkedIn or Twitter Every Week. While LinkedIn and Twitter facilitate new connections with people like us, you don't have to use the tools that way. Once a week, try connecting with someone not known to you or any of your connections through some random means. Use a random word generator and then search the respective social network. Pick one of the matches and reach out and begin to follow the person's posts. Resist the urge to filter selectively and pick people like yourself. At best, you will disrupt yourself, and at worst, you will have opened yourself up to new ideas.
Try Something New. We all have bucket lists and things we'd like to try someday. Make a commitment to try something new every few months, ideally an activity that brings you into contact with new people you wouldn't otherwise meet. For example, pursue a new hobby or craft, volunteer with a local organization, or take a training class.
Make an Anti-Bucket List. Create a list of all the things you have absolutely no interest in trying or doing, and seek out connections who have done those things. Their perspective and experiences might spark fresh ideas, or at least prevent ossification in your thinking.
Reassess Your Existing Connections. Though it's relatively easy to amass extensive LinkedIn and Twitter networks, it can be difficult keeping track of everyone. With so much competing for our attention, we tend to become desensitized to our diffuse professional networks and overlook when weak ties change careers or switch companies and move closer to the edge. Monitor LinkedIn status update emails and go through your professional connections a few times every year, noting when your contacts change professions or move farther to the edge of your network. Send a congratulatory note when someone is promoted or changes professions, and inquire about the change so you can assess how much of an edge tie the person has become.
What are your ideas for cultivating more edge ties?
A version of this post was originally published as "5 Ways To Strengthen Your Network By Weakening It" on on JobMob on June 27, 2012. The original post can be found here: http://jobmob.co.il/blog/strong-weak-network-ties/