Leadership Development

Networking as a Tool for Innovation

My dad was a carpenter in my home town. On my days off from school I’d tag along with him to his job sites. Every once in awhile he’d “go to coffee.” “Coffee” at the City Cafe was a weekday ritual for many business people in my small community. My dad, however, was an introvert and liked to stay busy so, unless it was convenient, he rarely attended. When he did, I noticed how it was a way to stay in-the-know about town news. Such news might have been who’s moving in or out of town, who’s booked up for business and needs help or insights from those who’ve traveled elsewhere and picked up new ideas. Any of these bits of news might impact a carpenter’s business.

Rituals like coffee breaks have gone by the wayside in most places, except for the proverbial coffee dates we have now for networking and catching up with friends and colleagues. But it seems to me that these coffee breaks are taking a new shape in current society and have value in helping us navigate the changes in our professional and personal lives.

In this series of posts on networking, today’s focus is on approaching networking as a way to expand your thinking and get new perspectives, either to enrich your own life or to bring innovation to your team.

Get a New Perspective – Outside of Your Team

When we think about networking, we often associate it with how it will benefit us personally or professionally in our careers. However, in recent years researchers have become aware of the power of social networks. Not Facebook, Instagram, etc., but how people interact in the workplace and the impact it has on how work gets done. By tracking interactions within and between teams, we can learn who has power and influence.

In the article The New Science of Building Great Teams by Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Harvard Business Review, April 2012 we learn that that teams were more successful when they went beyond the boundaries of the team. Teams who have members that leave the team from time to time to interact with others, in or out of the organization, perform better. Getting fresh ideas is not a new concept, but rather than seeking an external source to come in to the team, having the team members go outside the team is what is recommended.

Do you intentionally seek opportunities to get outside of your team to get a new perspective?

The Social Question – Networking within Your Team

One of my teams has a weekly “standup” video call. It’s a short meeting to resolve issues and report progress. Every week’s call begins with a social question – typically, “what’s on your mind these days?”

The purpose behind the social question is to give us chance to get to know each other as people, not just roles in an organization. In my case, we are a diverse group who works remotely so we don’t have much opportunity to get acquainted during the week while we’re in the midst of solving problems and meeting deadlines. The social question serves as a time to take a break in the action and turn attention to something new.

Another purpose of the social question is to see the world from someone else’s perspective. It energizes me to learn about someone else’s hobbies or passions and sometimes the discussion even leads to new ideas that will help the team.

If you want to try a social question in your team or mix up the discussion, here’s the link to The Only List of Icebreaker Questions You’ll Ever Need.

There’s a productivity case to be made for encouraging informal interaction in teams – in another component of the study mentioned above by Pentland, a manager was able to raise efficiency in teams 8% by instituting a common coffee break to encourage informal interaction.

So, whether you call it networking or coffee break or something else, cultivating conversation beyond the usual day-to-day, inside or outside of your team, can benefit you, your team and your organization.

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