One of my favorite theories in sociology has been Ron Burt’s “structural holes” theory (click here to read about the book). Burt says that individual success often comes from taking advantage of “holes” in your personal network – gaps between two groups which represent opportunities. For example, if somebody in the marketing department discovers that consumers want X, then that person could go to research and development and ask for X. In other words, creativity is about crossing boundaries.
The NY Times has a nice article on Burt’s latest research showing that managers in a large engineering firm (Raytheon) are more likely to come up with new ideas when they cross group boundaries in the firm. Managers at Raytheon who didn’t have “holes” in their networks were much less likely to come up with ideas deemed as innovative. Burt concludes that creativity is all about combining ideas and closing gaps.
My big criticism of the idea is that holes may be great for creativity, but lousy for the mundane daily operations of corporations. Most organizational life is not about coming up with dazzling new ideas, but it’s about efficiently accomplishing routine tasks. This is probably best done when networks are dense – people will share the same goals and have the same knowledge because they are in constant contact with each other. It’s probably the case that corporations that depend on innovation for their success have separate think tanks where individuals are encouraged to experiment and span boundaries, such as the famed Bell Laboratories.