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Collage Leadership – Part II: The significance of connective advantage

In the first part of this two-part piece I introduced you to the importance of collective intelligence and the idea that as a leader it is important to embrace others’ thinking that is different to your own: to seek out if you will ‘disconfirmation bias’.  In this way your leadership takes on an assortment, a collage of ideas, to be recombined in unique ways to offer meaningful insights and enrich your decision-making for the benefit of the communities you serve.

This second piece invites you to examine the connections you have and how much time you devote to making your network useful and stronger?

First, let’s examine what we mean by network. In people terms a network is a group or system of interconnected people.  Think about your network in school, you have the close network that is your senior leadership team; you have the network that is all your staff.  Then there is the wider school network – such as governors.  Think other stakeholders too.  In a maintained school, connections to the Local Authority are important and if you are part of a Trust the Trust Board and CEO may be crucial relationships to nurture.  Outside of your immediate organisation there will be your parent network, your professional network, the people you meet on this programme and those you have connected with via your social media platforms.

The great thing about leading in this environment is that you don’t have to have all the solutions; you can leverage your network instead.

Indeed in the commercial world, this explains why so many corporations are turning to open innovation to maintain their competitive advantage.  Companies such as GlaxoSmithKline and Proctor and Gamble are asking their networks for new ideas and solutions.  Businesses are increasingly embracing external cooperation.

So how much time do you devote to making your network useful and strong?

If you are one who finds the notion of ‘networking’ insincere or manipulative, then it might be time to flip your thinking and consider how the lack of time given to your network might be holding you back from developing yourself professionally, achieving your organisation goals and leading innovation.

It is important to pay attention to your network within your organisation and outside it.  As Heidi Gardner of Harvard Law School puts it “smart collaboration isn’t just a nice to have.  It’s a strategic response to external change.”

Think of your network as your connective advantage.

When the global business school INSEAD ran a management programme where executive students are asked the question ‘On a scale of 1-5, how important is having a good network to your ability to accomplish your goals?’ most answer with fours and fives.  But when asked a second question ‘On a scale of 1-5, how would you rate the quality of your network?’ the response drops to twos and threes.

What would your numbers be?

Building your connective advantage is crucial as a leader.

So what should your network look like to stimulate innovation?

You need to understand the benefit of your network within your organisation and the benefit of the one you have outside.  If you examined your network what would it tell you? Your network can be harnessed in different ways.  Your intra-school network, or inter-school network across your multi academy trust is one rich source.  These are the people you may need to influence to secure the change you are seeking, that will interrogate the suitability of these ideas within your context and implement them in order to ultimately realise their value.

You also need to consider your network’s density.  How dense is it with people purely inside your own organisation?  Too dense and you restrict the field for recombining knowledge in new ways.  This is because you all hold too similar a knowledge base so that you become an echo chamber and you could develop groupthink.

So consider how you can become a bridge – changing the web of relationships to help you (and your organisation) break out of current mindsets and limiting assumptions.  An everyday idea in one context can be a valuable insight in another.

Ron Burt, Professor of Sociology and Strategy at the University of Chicago refers to the concept of ‘structural holes.’ This is the gap between cohesive groups of people.  If you can span these holes – create your diverse network – you can benefit from translating what is known ‘over there’ to what is valuable ‘over here.’

That doesn’t mean you should rush to have so many connections that the balance of your network is too light with too many holes.  Let me use the analogy of me trying out a new recipe for baking a cake. Think about the cake that comes out of the oven all dense. It is a flat low volume cake with insufficient aeration; there are not enough holes.  Then there is the sunken top cake where too much added raising agent has created too many holes.  You need to develop your recipe that combines the ingredients in the right quantities to enjoy success.  In networking terms this means getting a good mix of internal and external connections.  You bring in new knowledge – and not just from other school leaders – to yield new insights for the way your organisation could work.

Thus, in addition to quality relationships inside your organisation, you have the ability to call on knowledge outside.  Build a diverse network and you become the person people go through to connect outside your school. In this way your ideal network is one that is future facing with a mix of internal ties and external connections.

So, in terms of connective advantage, how much of a ‘collaged leader’ are you or do you want to be?  I want you to think about the many images that could be used in a self-portrait collage.   This encourages you to be more playful and creative.

A collage is a collection or combination of various things.  So rather than the single image that is reflected back to you in the virtual team meeting, I want you to think about the many images that could be used in a self-portrait collage.   This encourages you to be more playful and creative.  Draw on a photo bank of the many people you are connected to and influenced by.  And ask yourself – how much has that collage changed over time?  Are you reliant on the same few photo images of people, or has it been peppered with new connections?

Because, as I’ve laid out for you, the more successfully you develop your “collage”, the more you have embraced collective intelligence and connective advantage: both fundamental to identifying opportunities and driving innovation in the current context.

Further reading

Ron Burt (2019) Structural Holes Capstone, Cautions and Enthusiasms, working paper https://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/ronald.burt/research/files/SHCCE.pdf

Adam Galinsky & Maurice Schweitzer (2016) Friend or Foe, Random House: London

Herminia Ibarra (2015) Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, Harvard Business Review Press: Boston

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