My attention has been captured by the research around social capital. As Robert Putnam painstakingly and thoroughly popularizes the use of the term in Bowling Alone, leadership scholars like Simon Walker also find it helpful as they address a way forward in the future. I’ll briefly address Walker’s use of the term and investigate social capital for developing innovative ideas and fostering a culture of creativity.
As Walker moves from the hard work of personal character, an analysis of power, and moves towards the external “so what?”, he begins to look at issues of external impact. In so doing, he explores the social fabric through examples of policing, elderly care, and the welcoming of outsiders (The Undefended Leader, 381-384). Like many, he grieves the decline of social capital and sees these needed bonds as the “magic ingredient” for healthy societies (381).
Social capital also impacts the generation and implementation of new, creative ideas. In his seminal work, Everett Rogers explores networks, creativity, innovation, and flourishing. To that end, he employs the strength-of-weak-ties theory. This theory was developed by Mark S. Granovetter in the early 1970s and has since been used to evaluate the bridging capabilities of weak ties (Rogers, Diffusion of Innovation, 339-340). Within intimate groups and cliques, these acquaintances and weak ties are the glue for the whole. The myth of the lone genius has been unequivocally debunked and has been replaced with the idea of collective genius. We each possess a slice of that genius that works itself out in the community, even if there is a lynchpin person or spokesperson.
As we near the one-year mark for the United State’s national impact of COVID-19, I’m hearing more and more people say, “I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to the office. I can’t get anything done there.” If by that they mean checking off their to-do list, I can agree, but we need a culture-wide shift of understanding the social connections that happen with “distractions” at work and understand the strength of weak ties. It remains necessary to reframe those connections as potential collaborative moments and instances for inspiration. The oft used metaphor of cross-pollination is very apt, as the bee flies quickly from flower to flower, bringing life to the whole ecosystem. I implore organizations to return to the office if they are making that decision for productivity and economic reasons. Of course, the Internet allows for connections to be made at distances never before possible, but even in that scenario, organizations need to formally provide opportunities for in-person weak ties to be made and fostered.
Box checking organizations will remain viable in a post-COVID-era, but those who pray for, dream about, and develop new, fresh ways will be those that foster the strength of weak ties.
Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York, Simon and Schuster: 2020).
Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (New York, Simon and Schuster: 2003)
Simon P. Walker, The Undefended Leader (Carlise, UK, Piquant, 2010)
Photo credit: Visible Network Lab