The ties that bind us: networks, strong links, weak links, and expanding our knowledge

Notes on the practice of innovation and technology commercialization.

“The ties that bind us to life are tougher than you imagine, or than anyone can who has not felt how roughly they may be pulled without breaking.” Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey, 1847.

Anne Brontë gives us a useful introduction to the concept of weak and strong links and the stability – resilience to external perturbations – of our professional networks. Think of a network’s ability to roll with the punches like the shock absorbers and springs on a car as it rides potholes in the road.

In fact it was not Anne, perhaps the least well know of the literary Brontë sisters, but Mark Granovetter, a Harvard graduate student in the 1960’s, who began much of the contemporary discussion of networks in his now classic study The Strength of Weak Ties which investigated how job seekers found employment. To cut a long story short, he found that rather than through relying on their close friends most found their jobs through contacts they knew less well, such as friends of friends. The analogous situation is to consider how we find new ideas. If we only talk to the people we know well it’s likely that discussions will proceed along familiar lines and new thinking will not emerge. Granovetter noted in his follow up study in 1983, The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited, “that individuals with few weak ties [what we now call links] will be deprived of information from distant parts of the social system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends. This deprivation will … insulate them from the latest ideas.”

InnoCentive is an online marketplace which connects organizations posing technical problems (seekers) with freelance problem solvers in a multitude of scientific and technical fields. Their regression results showed that the further the solvers rated the problem was from their own field of expertise the more likely they were to have solved the problem. For example an electrical engineer came up with a successful solution to a problem dealing with adhesives. Diversity of potential scientific approaches to a problem was a significant predictor of problem solving success in InnoCentive.

A national innovation fund in a rapidly developing nation was recently having problem making investments that would yield expected rates of return; the networks of the fund managers had many strong professional links but insufficient weak links to open them up to new ideas and different ways of thinking. But you might point out The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley makes much of the need to reduce transaction costs by building trust. Surely, strong links imply a higher level of trust then weak ones? This discussion will have to wait for another time; a clue – it’s all about context. Context is the subject of my March blog Solving the Right Problem: Part 1.

The LinkedIn professional network is another example of the power of weak links. In addition to its main purpose of job seeking, it can be an effective network to expand our thinking and absorb new ideas from participation in its multitude of LinkedIn Groups. If you want a visual representation of your LinkedIn network, go to

We have been talking about weak links, so we had better define them. A weak link is defined as a link in a network if it’s addition or removal does not significantly change the functioning of the network. In our own professional networks weak links are formed and also disappear all the time. There are more technical definitions and, as might be expected by anyone who has read my previous blogs, these definitions are highly context dependent. Much more about weak links can be found in the fascinating 2006 book by Peter Csermely – Weak Links: Stabilizers of Complex Systems from Proteins to Social Networks.

Weak links as stabilize complex system networks. Strong links also contribute to network stability, but if a strong link is lost the networks will behave in a different ways. Both kinds of links are necessary for stable networks and stable societies. However, as we saw from the national innovation fund example, if the system becomes too stable it cannot change or develop and new ideas will not form.  

It is often recommended that to commercialize innovations in a complex global marketplace innovators must break free of regional constraints and ultimately become interconnected to today’s globally distributed markets, sources of investment, partnership prospects, and talent.  This certainly seems to make sense. So should we just go and create as many network links of all kinds as we can and just link to everyone? It may not be quite that simple.

Neil Johnson in his 2007 highly readable book Simply Complexity and a follow up, not so easy to read, research paper with colleagues, Dynamical Interplay Between Local Connectivity and Global Competition in a Networked Population, describes populations which might, for example, be competing for business. Their research found that for populations with modest resources adding small amounts of connectivity between members of the population increased the disparity between successful and unsuccessful people and reduced the mean success rate. In higher resource populations they found that the levels are interconnectivity increase the mean success rate and enable most (objects) to be successful. At higher levels of interconnectivity, the overall population became fairer (smaller disparity in success rates) but less efficient (small mean success rate) irrespective of the global resource level.

Or, as stated by Justin Marlowe at the University of Kansas in a related 2007 study of public debt management Network Stability and Organization Performance: Does Context Matter  “the consequences of ‘wiring up’ an additive population depends quite dramatically on the interplay between the local connectivity and the global resources.” This finding is consistent with a growing literature that suggests networks in general, and stable networks in particular, distribute resources in ways that may reinforce inequalities.

We are beginning to see that not only is it important to have the right mix of strong and weak links in a network and that also simply saying that we should link to everyone may not always be the right choice. Also, this mix of link types is certainly necessary, but what is really important is the ease with which information moves through networks – the subject of the next blog in this series.

I admit that all this is becoming confusing; although it’s clear that the networking story has still far to run and that we will continue to learn more about how networks support innovation. Let’s hope the lesson are worth the effort and not as Anne Brontë  said elsewhere in Agnes Grey –  “All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity that the dry, shriveled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.”

Next time: There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza – Network holes and how to plug them.

Stanford scholar and design expert, Ade Mabogunje talks about the importance of design in business

Yourstory, an Indian news outlet for entrepreneurs, has a Q&A with Ade Mabogunje.

YS: How do you define design?

AM: In the field of design research at Stanford, we’re particular what we mean by design. Herbert Simon in his book ‘The Science of the Artificial’ said: Think about the sun, the moon, the sky, the trees. We humans did not make them. They are what you call ‘natural science’. However products, organisations, companies, family structures, religions, were all made by humans. We made them, hence he called them ‘artificial science’. There are different religions around the world and they were all formed as humankind tried to wrestle with their existence, and come up with ideas and solutions of that time. Doctors prescribe therapies; a therapy is a design. We use the word ‘lawmakers’, they’re making rules to guide the society, it’s a design. Our policy is being designed by policy makers. The finesse of businesses which is about organising things, like what entrepreneurs do, is design. So design is what human beings do to adapt to their environment. It goes beyond the product. We design what we wish for. That’s the way we talk about design, we are interested in the intellectual, emotional, physical and the mental walks that go to make design possible. We saw this when we went to villages. We saw how they have adapted to their environment. So design gives us the belief that we can by being aware of our environment, change the situation.

YS: Tell us more about your research at Stanford.

AM: Our research is based on the concept of reverse engineering. Back in the 80s, the Japanese produced better cars than what was produced in US and Europe, and they were producing them in a much shorter time — roughly in two years, whereas in US and Europe it took five years. There was a panic in the US, we wanted to understand how they did that. So we started the field of design research, to understand how engineers and designers think when they do design. If we could know how they think, we could build artificial intelligence to replace it. But we couldn’t figure out how they think, so we employed techniques from field of anthropology and used videos to observe them (Japanese workers), how they work. And we got a lot of insights. Humans are not the only ones who design, ants build ant hill, spider web is a design. It’s just about instincts of creatures and how they adapt to the environment. We gained a lot of insights. We thought better computation would help make better design. But more than computation, communication was important to design. Then we thought to focus on the individual. But people work together, so it was better to focus on the theme than the individual. People find it difficult to move from analysis to synthesis, where they bring things together. When we started product design, we discovered that people need to work hands on. And that we must combine both, analytical and synthesis skills, and that will help human communication, how ideas are shared. These components are very difficult to design.


Read the rest at

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology draws parallels between their university and Rainforest Ecosystem


When it comes to promoting innovation, why do some communities flounder while others flourish? 

Venture capital experts Victor W. Hwang and Greg Horowitt, authors of The Rainforest, think they have an answer.

The magic of Silicon Valley, Northern California’s seeming utopia of innovation, isn’t unique, but it is rare. That isn’t because recreating such an environment hasn’t been tried. It has, many times, in many places.

Following the popularization of Michael Porter’s cluster theory, people around the world in government, nonprofits, and academia have been trying to weave together the threads of Henry Etzkowitz’s triple helix to drive regional development. Governments have tried to bring companies big and small together with universities and local businesses to create a self-seeding ecosystem.

But Hwang and Horowitt argue that the cooperation of governments, academia, and the private sector alone is not enough to create ecosystems of innovation, or “Rainforests.” Innovation thought leader Vivek Wadhwa concurs: These efforts inevitably fail, because entrepreneurial ecosystems simply can’t be built from the top down. What is needed, and what governments can’t create, is a culture of information-sharing and mentorship, which is what has made Silicon Valley a success.

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Chosun Business News has an article on fostering innovation ecosystems

Victor gets quoted in this Korean article analyzing the factors behind Silicon Valley’s innovation success.

Read it at

The Zen Of Innovation Leadership: ‘And’

Henry Doss’ latest Forbes article:

You’ve just gotten the biggest, most challenging assignment of your career.  You’ve been handed an under-performing division in your organization and your job is to turn it around. Fast.  The pressure for immediate, tangible results is intense.  You do not want to fail at this assignment.

Challenge Black&White

Sometimes choices appear black and white; this is an illusion.

You’ve been meeting with the management team you inherited.  You find them to be committed to the challenge and experienced; they also know where all the bodies are buried.  You’ve been preaching the need to produce results quickly, but your team tells you they need your strong support to experiment with new, untested approaches to producing the asked-for results. Many of these will certainly fail in the near term, but continuing to do what has always been done is just not going to work.  Your boss says “now!” Your management team says “a little time and space, please.”

In this scenario, what would be your leadership approach?  Do you focus on delivering short-term results, as your assignment demands; or do you focus on providing support to your management team?

Read the answer at

A set of tools to nurture your own Silicon Valley

A review of The Rainforest Blueprint from

Around the world, governments are making huge investments in creating their own version of Silicon Valley, in the hope it stimulates innovation-based growth in their economies, and hence generating wealth.  This money is often spent in developing ecosystems of science parks, incubators, accelerators and fostering industry-academia links.

A new book aims to make the creation of these innovation ecosystems more of a science –a short 66-page book entitled, “The Rainforest Blueprint: How to design your own Silicon Valley”, claims to be a practical guide for putting the lessons learned from Silicon Valley to work in businesses, organizations, and communities around the world.

Rainforest book 

read the full article at:

New Study Examines Correlation Between Entrepreneurial Personality Type and Rates of Regional Entrepreneurial Activity

The Rainforest gets mentioned in an interesting University of New Mexico article:


ALBUQUERQUE, NM – JUNE 18, 2013 With entrepreneurship an increasingly important topic of study in the social sciences, a recent study investigating the entrepreneurial personality, found that people with this entrepreneurial-prone profile are regionally clustered (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “The Regional Distribution and Correlates of an Entrepreneurship-Prone Personality Profile in the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom: A Socioecological Perspective,” Martin Obschonka, Eva Schmitt-Rodermund, Rainer K. Silbereisen, Samuel D. Gosling, and Jeff Potter, April 13, 2013).

The researchers also found a correlation between the personality profile and regional differences in entrepreneurial activity. The study analyzed personality data collected from more than 600,000 U. S. residents and public archival data on state-by-state entrepreneurial activity, such as new company creation and self-employment rates, which revealed a correlation between the two that matches geographical distribution patterns of entrepreneurial activity across the U. S. The correlations were replicated in independent German and British samples. According to the study, New Mexico ranks 8th in the country for its entrepreneurial personality profile.

Find the rest of the article at


How to Build a Rainforest, Silicon Valley Style

Size does not matter—at least not when it comes to the root causes of innovation. Whether you’re thinking of two people in a garage, or three million people in a region, the same mechanisms are at work behind the scenes, making innovation happen.

As a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, I am fascinated by – and have studied closely – the social dynamics of innovation ecosystems. I’m struck by how similar those dynamics are in both startups and broad communities.

You can read the rest of the article here:

Innovation: Leadership Is Always The Key

The transformation will come from leadership.

W. Edwards Deming

Pocket watch, savonette-type. Italiano: Orolog...Measurement is pretty good for some things . . . perhaps not so good for others

If your organization is struggling with innovation, or if you are slow in your development of a transformative culture, or if you just can’t seem to get momentum, energy and commitment from your teams . . . there may be a simple reason: You are focusing on systems and processes rather than on the development and nurturing of powerful individual leaders.  And if that’s true, you are almost certain to fail in creating innovation.

Our culture tends to place an inordinate amount of value on the linear, the measurable, the predictable.

A Huge Global Epidemic: Fake Nerds

There is a quiet epidemic sweeping the world.  The breadth of this contagion is beyond our ability to measure.  And the consequences are potentially staggering.

What could such an overwhelming phenomenon be?  Fake nerds.

You can find the rest of the article here: