What Steve Jobs can teach us about networking

By Josh Mait
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The Brief
Think about the last time you engaged with people in your network. Now think about who those people were—their professional backgrounds, education levels, interests, hobbies. Remind you of anyone? Other contacts, maybe? Maybe even yourself? Here’s why that’s a problem. 
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One of networking’s pervasive norms is also one of its most challenging: homogeneity. Often, when we think we’re at the top of our connecting game, we’re simply moving in circles occupied by individuals who think and act as we do (“Welcome Young Accountants of New York City!” “Akron Salutes its Professional Women’s Network!”). And while there are clearly very real virtues to strengthening industry ties, it’s also true that such “closed networks” can stunt our creativity and problem-solving abilities.

As Michael Simmons discusses in a recent article in Forbes, we tend to cluster together in like-minded groups because evolution has taught us that it’s a good way to steer clear of danger. To be fair, it does work—we’re still here, aren’t we? Professionally speaking, though, it’s an issue, and one a lot harder to push past than you think.

Unless you’re, say, Steve Jobs. 

Many consider the Apple founder a genius of relationship building. But it started with Jobs’ curiosity about the world and how it works, because it impelled him to seek out diverse groups of people with a wide range of ideas. The magic came with Jobs’ ability to synthesize those ideas. But without exposure to those ideas would he even have had the opportunity to connect his creative dots?

“Job’s magic came with his ability to synthesize the ideas from his diverse experiences. Without that exposure would he even have connected his creative dots?”

Some research suggests that networking across disciplines musters its own kind of genius. In Neighbor Networks: Competitive Advantage Local and Personal, Ronald Burt of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business (whom Simmons interviewed for his article) proposes that “brokering” across diverse groups heightens managers’ cognitive and emotional intelligence. Being forced to pull together distinct ideas and teams hones skills necessary for professional success.
 
Other studies have found value in open networks too. At Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, Katharine Phillips and her team reported that heterogeneous groups were better at decision-making (in this case, while solving a “murder”) than their homogeneous counterparts. Interestingly, homogeneous groups were more confident in their more-often-wrong decisions.

That’s because it’s easy to be self-sure when you’re surrounded by people who are likely to second your opinions. But you can see why that would also be the least productive, least innovative dynamic. In teams afflicted by groupthink, new ideas suffocate before they can ever blossom. It’s tension and disagreement that breeds critical thinking and sparks creativity. Argument makes the arguer—provided he is open-minded—see how a bunch of disparate ideas can coalesce into a single great one. 

“Homogeneous groups were more confident in their more-often-wrong decisions.” 

As Simmons, with his hefty appreciation for hindsight, points out, Jobs was a master of this. His time in India influenced his obsession with minimalist design. His passion for electronics gave birth to the first Mac. His love of music helped inspire iTunes. Most important, however, each of his interests led him to different kinds of people, some of whom were wise in their own right. They, in turn, made Jobs smarter. So give Jobs’ open network an assist in distilling the Apple aesthetic and achieving its unprecedented success. Think different? Absolutely. But that means meeting different too.

Josh Mait is the Chief Marketing Officer of Relationship Science (RelSci). RelSci helps create competitive advantage for leading non-profit, corporate and financial organizations through a crucial yet vastly underutilized asset: relationship capital with influential decision makers. 

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